Models, feedback and crows

An article from Ars Technica on Crows not being as smart as we once thought. Apparently they’re good at meat-attached strings, but not at building mental models of said strings:

What is the difference between model-based solutions and feedback-based solutions? When we rely on feedback, we first perform an action—pull on the string and trap it underfoot—if we perceive that we are closer to our goal (the meat is now closer), we repeat the action. A model-based solution, on the other hand, involves understanding that the meat is connected to a bit of string, and that to get the meat, we must pull the string up. In the second case, feedback after each step is not required, because we understand the problem and know that we will be rewarded in the end.

To build a model requires a deeper understanding of the situation: that there is string, and it is connected to food. We know that crows understand the connectivity between the string and the meat to a certain extent. For instance, if there are multiple strings, the crow will usually pull the correct one. If the strings are crossed, but have different colors, the crow will still usually pull the correct one.

But if you cover the string with a bit of wood with a small hole in it (so the crows can either look or pull but not both at the same time):

The authors found, as expected, that the crows given the normal string test figured it out quite fast. Of those given the test involving pulling the meat up through a hole in a piece of wood, only one crow succeeded. Further, the birds that were experienced in solving the normal string test performed much worse when faced with the more difficult test. This combination suggests that even experienced crows really need constant feedback to solve the problem. Conclusion: crows don’t make models.

I must admit to having a little problem with that conclusion. First, one crow did solve the problem; second, the crows all varied widely in their performance on all of the tests, suggesting that problem-solving abilities vary wildly between individuals—no surprise there. Finally, I think the distinction between model-building and feedback-based problem solving skills are artificial points in a mental toolkit that spans a continuum.

The point is that, even when we make models of the world, we rely on feedback to validate those models. Our previous experience also influences how quickly we abandon a model in the absence of positive feedback. These experiments show that, if crows do build models, they don’t generalize them very well, and they require a fair bit of reinforcement before they’ll abandon the model. But, other than the amount of reinforcement involved and the complexity of the model, is this that different from human behavior?

To be really human, the crows would need to be able to create a model that is completely non-feedback based; researchers would have the toughest time proving it though.

Good enough data

I’ve been spending some time at work scraping data. Long story short: government transparency is not transparent when the only access they give you is a pile of poorly structured html. That’s better than government opacity but not past the level of frosted glass: titillating but unsatisfying. If your expected audience is pencil pushers, please release your data in a spreadsheet. That’s what I did.

Notes for nerds:

**Regular Expressions vs. Parsing Engines: **I wrote a the first parser in Python with Regular Expressions, then rewrote it in BeautifulSoup (a Python parser). It took me about 2 hours to write it the first time with RegExp. It took me about 2 days to do it with BeautifulSoup. It’s slightly easier to maintain now, but you tell me which one is more semantically correct:

project_title ='<tr><td><b>Project&nbsp;title</b></td><td>(.+)</td></tr>', line)


project_title = app.find(text="Project&nbsp;title").parent.parent.nextSibling.string

Yep, it’s written in 2-column tables with each row being a different data-set: the first column holds a key (if there is a key; sometimes there isn’t) and the second column being the data . With RegExp, I know exactly what I’m looking for. With the parser, I have to find the element in the tree, then traverse up, over and down (if there isn’t a key, I have to go up, up, over, over, over, down, over, down). The data itself is a big set of applications (about 2000+ total) and each application has about 15 different data-sets (some with keys, some just follow a consistent-ish pattern).

Fortunately, I have an appreciative audience for my troubles and it lets me draw pretty maps like the ones above. Also  done with Python by parsing an SVG vector image.

Michigan boaters beware: there is now an isthmus between Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. Rather than rewrite the process for grouped-shapes—Michigan being in 2 parts—it was good enough to make Michigan 1. Hawaii somehow endured.

Cleaving the visual experience

From Jacques Racière’s The Future of the Image (translated by Gregory Elliot):

The imprint of the thing, the naked identity of its alterity in place of its imitation, the wordless, senseless materiality of the visible instead of the figures of discourse–this is what is demanded by the contemporary celebration of the image or its nostalgic evocation: an immanent transcendence, a glorious essence of the image guaranteed by the very mode of its material production. Doubtless no one has expressed this view better than the Barthes of Camera Lucida, a work that ironically has become the bible of those who wish to think about photographic art, whereas it aims to show that photography is not an art. Against the dispersive multiplicity of the operations of art and games of signification, Barthes wants to assert the immediate alterity of the image—that is, in the strictest sense, the alterity of the One. He wants to establish a direct relationship between the indexical nature of the photographic image and the material way it affects us: the punctum, the immediate pathetic effect that he contrasts with the studium, or the information transmitted by the photograph and the meanings it receives. The studium makes the photograph a material to be decoded and explained. The punctum immediately strikes us with the affective power of the that was: that —i.e. the entity which was unquestionably in front of the aperture of the camera obscura, whose body has emitted radiation, captured and registered by the black chamber, which affects us here and now through the ‘carnal medium’ of light ‘like the delayed rays of a star.

Fortunately, Racière repudiates a hierarchical distinction:

…the semiologist who read the encoded message of images and the theoretician of the punctum of the wordless image base themselves on the same principle: a principle of reversible equivalence between the silence of images and what they say. The former demonstrated that the image was in fact a vehicle for a silent discourse which endeavored to translate into sentences. The latter tells us that the image speaks to us precisely when it is silent, when it no longer transmits any message to us. Both conceive the image as speech which holds its tongue. The former mad its silence speak; the latter makes this silence the abolition of all chatter. But both play on the same inter-convertibility between two potentialities of the image: the image as raw, material presence and the image as discourse encoding a history.

Quality of life, mind and language

From “Business of Design”, a section of David Barringer’s excellent book There’s nothing funny about design:


Quality of life depends on quality of mind, which depends on quality of language. Heightened experience requires both practiced sensory perception and the vocabulary with which to render its significance to yourself and others.

To convey impressions of your own experience to others, you are often bound to language as the flatbed truck for that conveyance, even when your experience is not linguistic or textual but visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory.

To savor experience you must define experience, and definitions involve the abuse of words.

It is for future designers to convey odors that summarize a poem, sounds that describe the texture of a touch, and images that define an odor.

To enhance your perception, you must exercise your imagination. Expand the control room of your mind to include maps of the surrounding dimensions of experience, as measured and reduced by sight, sound smell, touch, etc. Construct these maps in leisure, with fine concentration, to guide your judgments in times of haste and fury.

I love that first paragraph for its similarity to previous musings on self, language and consciousness.

Mount Vernon, Port Huron and Sharon Statements in Comparison

Apparently conservatives have a new statement named for Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. The new Mount Vernon Statement is modeled on the 1960s conservative Sharon Statement (named for William F. Buckley’s home), though it’s slightly ironic considering the Sharon Statement was quite firm on state’s rights and Washington was a Federalist. From comparing the statements, it appears that the conservatives have made their peace with the Federal government:

Mount Vernon Statement:

The conservatism of the Constitution limits government’s powers but ensures that government performs its proper job effectively. It refines popular will through the filter of representation. It provides checks and balances through the several branches of government and a federal republic.

Sharon Statement:

THAT the genius of the Constitution - the division of powers - is summed up in the clause that reserves primacy to the several states, or to the people in those spheres not specifically delegated to the Federal government;

And of course we need to compare that to the liberal Port Huron Statement (named for the SDS conference where it was written):

How shall the “public sector” be made public, and not the arena of a ruling bureaucracy of “public servants”? By steadfast opposition to bureaucratic coagulation, and to definitions of human needs according to problems easiest for computers to solve. Second, the bureaucratic pileups must be at least minimized by local, regional, and national economic planning – responding to the interconnection of public problems by comprehensive programs of solution. Third, and most important, by experiments in decentralization, based on the vision of man as master of his machines and his society.

In both style and content, the Mount Vernon Statement is much closer to the lefty Port Huron Statement than the Sharon Statement. Today’s conservatives are about “recommitment” and “natural fusion”; they ask rhetorical questions (“Isn’t this idea of change an empty promise or even a dangerous deception?”); and feel the need to buttress arguments by appealing to the authority of our founders: “The self-evident truths of 1776 have been supplanted by the notion that no such truths exist.”

Those kids in the 60s were a kick-to-the-face. Today, not so much.

…Ok, one more:

Mount Vernon Statement:

A Constitutional conservatism based on first principles provides the framework for a consistent and meaningful policy agenda. … It encourages free enterprise, the individual entrepreneur, and economic reforms grounded in market solutions.

Sharon Statement:

THAT the market economy, allocating resources by the free play of supply and demand, is the single economic system compatible with the requirements of personal freedom and constitutional government, and that it is at the same time the most productive supplier of human needs;

In comparison, a verb like “encourages” sounds pretty weak.

Motivated design

From David Barringer’s “Myths of the Self-Taught Designer” in his book of essays and more, _There’s Nothing Funny about Design _(and available online in parts  1, 2 and 3).

Designed as a dialogue, this piece is, as Barringer says, “a hybrid mess of a literary shenanigan, inspired by the dialogues of the philosopher Denis Diderot (1713-1784). If you think I took the conversation too far, see Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist (1782).”

Jumping in…

Ego: So, to sum up, anyone with the intent to design can claim to be a graphic designer in our messy age of design pluralism. You don’t need the degree, the tools, the status, the employer, or even a client. You certainly don’t need to be good or even competent. You just need the intent. So what is at stake, and for whom, in defining the identity of the designer? Credentials are one way to define identity, and credentials matter to some. They signify to potential employers; signify less to potential clients; and always make our mothers proud. But what is at stake for the individual designer? I think that’s where we need to go next.

Devil: I agree. Design pluralism recognizes the diversity of individuals working in some measure in a field we’ve agreed to call graphic design, itself a broad category, its membrane permeable enough to absorb the practitioners of the year’s latest digital arts. Together, this pluralism and the attendant technological advances that impact the practice of graphic design disturb the discipline and unsettle the individual. In a steady profession and stable economy—

Ego: Both concepts being theoretical— 

Devil: Many are content to let their jobs define them. Who am I? I am my job. But graphic design is not a steady profession, and the economy is not stable. Uncertainty is the order of the day. Undeterred, people may cling to a mere skill set as an indicator of who they are, defining themselves in ever more narrow and conditional terms. In a moral panic, a designer might crave the next seminar in web design as if it were a personality upgrade, the next slogan from the best-selling business pundit as if it were a reprieve from a death sentence. Why? Because today’s skill set is tomorrow’s software template. And today’s job is tomorrow’s downsized nod to the stockholders. 

Ego: So this is why self-definition is so urgent and infuriating. The economic is personal. Who you are today may not even be who you are tomorrow. 

Devil: I’m an expert in Pagemaker. I mean, Quark. Oops, InDesign. Flash. No, wait, I’m a problem-solver! A branding consultant! A, a. . . . 

Ego: In this environment, you are not saved by what you know. 

Devil: What you know is only what you knew. And that’s why it feels, to me, like there is no such thing as art or design, jobs or retirement. There is only the work that you do and the you who is doing it. What is at stake in all this is the individual designer’s self-definition. 

Ego: And let me guess. What we are dismantling here is the overarching myth of the self-taught, which is that the label of being self-taught no longer functions as a meaningful symbol of the designer’s identity, whether as a romantic symbol or a derogatory one. Regarding yourself as self-taught, as a self-motivated learner, as you said before, is more and more coming to be an essential component of that self-definition, no matter what kind of graphic designer you are. 

Devil: Did I say that?

The section of the book that includes this is entitled “Design is a hug at a distance”.

A temperance of words

From Karen Armstrong’s A History of God:

In 529 the emperor Justinian closed the ancient school of philosophy in Athens, the last bastion of intellectual paganism: its last great master had been Proclus (412-485), an ardent disople of Plotinus. Pagan philosophy went underground and seemed defeated by the new religion of Christianity. Four years later, however, four mystical treatises appeared which were purportedly written by Denys the Areopagite, St. Paul’s first Athenian convert. They were, in fact, written by a sixth-century Greek Christian, who has preserved his anonymity. The pseudonym had a symbolic power, however, which was more important than the identity of the author Pseudo-Denys managed to baptize the insights of Neoplatonism and wed the God of the Greeks to the Semitic God of the Bible.

Denys was also the heir of the Cappadocian Fathers. Like Basil, he took the distinction between kerygma and dogma very seriously. In one of a his letters, he affirmed that there were two theological traditions, both of which derived from the apostles. The kerygmatic gospel was clear and knowable; the dogmatic gospel was silent and mystical. Both were mutually interdependent, however, and essential to the Christian faith. One was “symbolic and presupposing initiation,” the other “philosophical and capable of proof—and the ineffable is woven with what can be uttered.” The kerygma persuades and exhorts by its clear, manifest truth, but the silent or hidden tradition of dogma was a mystery that required initiation: “It effects and establishes the soul with God by initiations that do not teach anything,” Denys insisted, in words that recalled Aristotle. There was a religious truth which could not adequately be conveyed by words, logic or rational discourse. It was expressed symbolically, through the language and gestures of the liturgy or by doctrines which were “sacred veils” that hid the ineffable meaning from view but which also adapted the utterly mysterious God to the limitations of human nature and expressed the Reality in terms that could he grasped imaginatively if not conceptually.

The hidden or esoteric meaning was not for a privileged elite but for all Christians. Denys was not advocating an abstruse discipline that was suitable for monks and ascetics only. The liturgy, attended by all the faithful, was the chief path to God and dominated his theology. The reason that these thruths were hidden behind a protective veil was not to occlude men and women of goodwill but to lift all Christians above sense perceptions and concepts to the inexpressible reality of God himself. The humility which had inspired the Cappodocians to claim that all theology should be apophatic became for Denys a bold method of ascending to the inexpressible God.

In fact, Denys did not like to use the word “God” at all—probably because it had acquired such inadequate and anthropomorphic connotations. He preferred to use Proclus’s term theurgy, which was primarily liturgical: theurgy in the pagan world had been a tapping of the divine mana by means of sacrifice and divination. Denys applied this to God-talk, which, properly understood, could also release the divine energeiai inherent in the revealed symbols. He agreed with the Cappedociens that all our words and concepts for God were inadequate and must not be taken as an accurate description of a reality which lies beyond our ken.

Even the word “God” itself was faulty, since God was “above God,” a “mystery beyond being.” Christians must realize that God is not the Supreme Being, the highest being of all heading a hierarchy of lesser beings. Things and people do not stand over against God as a separate reality or an alternative being, which can be the object of knowledge. God is not one of the things that exist and is quite unlike anything else in our experience. In fact, it is more accurate to call God “Nothing”: we should not even call him a Trinity since he is “neither a unity nor a trinity in the sense in which we know them.” He is above all names just as he is above all being. Yet we can use our incapacity to speak about God as a method of achieving a union with him, which is nothing less than a “deification” (theosis) of our own nature. God had revealed some of his Names to us in scripture, such as “Father,” “Son” and “Spirit,” yet the purpose of this had not been to import information about him but to draw men and women toward himself and enable them to share his divine, nature.

In each chapter of his treatise The Divine Names, Denys begins with a kerygmatic truth, revealed by God: his goodness, wisdom, paternity and so forth. He then proceeds to show that although God has revealed something of himself in these titles, what he means is not himself. If we really want to understand God, we must go on to deny those attributes and names. Thus we must say that he is both “God” and “not-God,” “good” and then go on to say that he is “not-good” The shock of this paradox, a process that includes both knowing and unknowing, will lift us above the world of mundane ideas to the inexpressible reality itself. Thus, we begin by saying that:

of him there is understanding, reason, knowledge, touch, perception, imagination, name and many other things. But he is not understood, nothing can be said of him, he cannot be named. He is not one of the things that are [nor is he known in any of the things that are: he is all things in everything and nothing in anything].”

Reading the Scriptures is not a process of discovering facts about God, therefore, but should be a paradoxical discipline that turns the kerygma into dogma. This method is a theurgy, a tapping of the divine power that enables us to ascend to God himself and, as Platonists had always taught, become ourselves divine. It is a method to stop is thinking! “We have to leave behind us all our conceptions of the divine. We call a halt to the activities of our minds!’” We even have to have our denials of God’s attributes behind. Then and only than shall we achieve an ecstatic union with God.

When Denys talks about ecstasy, he is not referring to a peculiar state of mind or an alternative form of consciousness achieved by an obscure yogic discipline. This is something that every Christian can manage in this paradoxical method of prayer and theoria. It will stop us talking and bring us to the place of silence: “As we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing” Like Gregory of Nyssa, he found the story of Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai instructive. Moses had climbed the mountain, he did not see God himself on the summit but had only been brought to the place where God was. He had been enveloped by a thick cloud of obscurity and could see nothing: thus everything that we cm see or understand is only a symbol (the word Denys uses is “paradigm”) which reveals the presence of a reality beyond all thought. Moses had passed into the darkness of ignorance and thus achieved union with that which surpasses all understanding: we will achieve a similar ecstasy that will “take us out of ourselves” and unite us to God.

The preceding’s length can be compared to the first 14 lines of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (translation by S. Mitchell):

The tao that can be told

is not the eternal Tao

The name that can be named

is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.

Naming is the origin

of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.

Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations

arise from the same source.

This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.

The gateway to all understanding.

So where does that leave us (emphasis mine):

Dessys’s method became normative in Greek theology. In the West, however, theologians would continue to talk and explain. Some imagined that when they said “God,” the divine reality actually coincided with the idea in their minds. Some would attribute their own thoughts and ideas to God—saying that God wanted this, forbade that and had planned the other—in a way that was dangerously idolatrous. The God of Greek Othodoxy, however, would remain mysterious, and the Trinity would continue to remind Eastern Christians of the provisional nature of their doctrines. Eventually, the Greeks decided that an authentic theology must meet Denys’s two criteria: it must be silent and paradoxical.

Washing of dishes requires great peace of mind

From Thicht Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness:

In the United States, I have a close friend name Jim Forest. When I first met him eight years ago, he was working with the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Last winter, Jim came to visit. I usually wash the dishes after we’ve finished the evening meal, before sitting down an d drinking tea with everyone also. One night, Jim asked if he might do the dishes. I said, “Go ahead, but if you wash the dishes you must know the way to wash them.” Jim replied, “Come on, you think I don’t know how to wash the dishes?” I answered, “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.” Jim was delighted and said, “I choose the second way – to wash the dishes to wash the dishes.From then on, Jim knew how to wash the dishes. I transferred the “responsibility” to him for an entire week.

If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either…. Thus, we are sucked away into the future – and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.”

Directly preceding this:

While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes. At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence, and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.

Criticism for everyone

From Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

At present we’re snowed under with an irrational expansion of blind data-gathering in the sciences because there’s no rational format for an understanding of scientific creativity. At present we are also snowed under with a lot of stylishness in the arts—thin art—because there’s very little assimilation or extension into underlying form. We have artists with no scientific knowledge and scientists with no artistic knowledge and both with no spiritual sense of gravity at all, and the result is not just bad, it is ghastly.

The following precedes the former, but if I put it in order the people who care about technology will stop reading when they hit romance (you know who you are!) and vice versa (same!) and the people who can grok both won’t care either way (yeah!):

In the past our common universe of reason has been in the process of escaping, rejecting the romantic, irrational world of prehistoric man. It’s been necessary since before the time of Socrates to reject the passions, the emotions, in order to free the rational mind for an understanding of nature’s order which was as yet unknown. Now it’s time to further an understanding of nature’s order by reassimilating those passions which were originally fled from. The passions, the emotions, the affective domain of man’s consciousness are a part of nature’s order too. The central part.

The time for a real unification of art and technology is really long overdue.

So go make something lovely (that’s for the people who can grok both; the rest of you are grousing).

Ethical flexibility for export

I greatly enjoy this leap of ethics in my spam folder over the weekend:


My name is David Smith, I am a Project Coordinator with UNICEF’s Office of Emergency Programs (EMOPS) we are the focal point for emergency Assistance, humanitarian policies, staff security and support to UNICEF Offices in the field, as well as strategic coordination with external Humanitarian partners both within and outside the United Nations system. It is indeed with great optimism that I am writing you because I had to ensure that whoever I would contact in regards to this transaction must be someone I can trust.

Last year, series of donations amounting to US$5.8M (Five Million Eight Hundred Thousand Dollars) were made to our organization. These donations were later earmarked for developmental projects in two West African countries. The problem is when funds are released for these sort of projects especially In Africa, they are most often misused or in some cases believe it or not, embezzled by corrupt government officials there.

This practice has gone on for so long and not very much has been done about it and I have always been made to understand that my work is based on humanitarian grounds and I have done this work to the best of my ability but there is very little to show for it for somebody in my position.

As a result, I have painstakingly decided to divert some of these funds as a retirement benefit because even if this money is released, it will still be stolen by officials in Africa anyway.

This is why I am contacting you, because I need your acceptance and co-operation in allowing these funds to be transferred to you as the Sub-contractor of these projects in Africa.

At least he goes on to offer a 50/50 split.