Subscribe to Computing Intelligence

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Not Much Going On

Not much has happened in the last couple days. I filed my taxes, which was nice to finally have out of the way. I played some squash, which is good considering that my physical activity in the first three and a half months of this year consisted of walking to and from campus (and occasionally to the grocery store). One thing I am quite pleased with is that I cannibalized the hard drive from my laptop (the screen was shot, making the laptop pretty much useless as a unit) and successfully transfered it into a cute little hard drive enclosure. So I now have a nice little 60GB portable hard drive about the size of an iPod. Of course, the hard drive transfer isn't really an act of technical genius, but since I am a bit of a loser when it comes to dealing with hardware, I was fairly proud of myself.

Anyway, time to get back to working on that fine balance between studying and procrastination.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Name Change

So, I changed the title of my blog. My girlfriend thought mashing together parts of two words did not make a very good name, and I guess I have to admit that "NeuroComp" wasn't very great. It was just the first thing that popped into my head when I was making this.

I decided to change the title to "Computing Intelligence", although I also briefly contemplated "Natural Intelligence" (as a play on the field of Artificial Intelligence). If anyone feels like they can think of a better title, feel free to let me know.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Scientist Appreciation: Donald Hebb

Donald Hebb was a fairly interesting fellow who I am quite a fan of (though I only superficially know of his work). I am a fan for some silly reasons, such as the fact that he was Canadian like me (and Canada does seem to have a deficit of famous scientists, since all our clever people seem to go into comedy). However, I am also a fan for the style and content of his scientific work.

Now, maybe it's because I'm tired and my brain is a little woozy from that exam I wrote this morning (which, incidentally, could definitely have gone better. Guessing on a non-multiple choice exam never bodes well), but I'm going to have to ask any readers to bear with my lack of structure and proper flow. I promised to have this written today, and I've already slept away the afternoon, so dishevelled, slightly ornery, hungry, and a little confused or not, I'm going to just have to forge ahead.

All right, that complete detour is over with, so back to Donald Hebb. One of the very nice things about him is his last name seems to be one of those wonderful last names uniquely suited to claiming ownership of ideas. Hebbian sounds like a proper word, in ways that my last name never could. More importantly than having a last name that is easy to turn into an adjective, Hebb also did some very important work that was worth claiming ownership of. His most famous work is now known as Hebbian Learning, and was basically the idea that a network of interconnected neurons could alter their synapses in such a manner to become strongly associated. Once such associations were created, the activation of just a portion of the neurons would lead to them all activating, and this could be one method of learning and memory. While, like most ideas in psychology, this is not the entire story, there are two major aspects of it that I am a huge fan of. The first is that it is mathematically reasonable, something that Hebb set about demonstrating (Hebbian learning was vitally important in spawning modern work on neural netowrks). The second, and equally important, is that it is rooted in physiological evidence, something Hebb also worked on demonstrating. Those are two aspects that I find unfortunately lacking in many works of psychology, and the fact that Hebb recognized the need for both makes him one of my favourite psychologists. It also helps that, at least according to Wikipedia, he and I agree on Freud lacking rigour.

Unfortunately, I will never get to meet Hebb to give him my appreciation, since he died a few months after I was born.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Plan for a New Weekly Feature

Of course, I should be studying for my neuroscience exam right now, but while doing that studying my mind keeps wandering to things I would rather be doing. One of those things is writing inane tidbits for this blog. So, to satisfy my slightly OCD need to write something, I've decided to write a short bit about what I will write about tomorrow when I actually have the time to do a proper post. The idea is to start doing a weekly post every Friday (that seems as good a day as any to do it on). This way I can make get into the habit of making sure I generate at least a little new content on a somewhat regular basis.

The planned feature will be called Scientist Appreciation and will basically be a short or long (depending on how much I know and how much research I feel like doing) bit about some scientist and his or her accomplishments from my skewed perspective. The scientist up for tomorrow: Donald Hebb.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Some quick media reactions

I just wanted to put up some quick links to media I have watched/listened to when I should have been studying.

The first is from the most recent episode of Real Time. I was mightily cheered by this part of his show, especially since I spent four years living in small town western Pennsylvania and being appalled by the general political and religious atmosphere of the place. Perhaps things are changing.

The second is a link to a set of downloads for a conversation between Scientific American and Mark Mathis, one of the fellows behind that intellectual travesty that came out on the weekend (and that I keep linking to the site that debunks its claims). It is kind of difficult to listen to, since Mr. Mathis is fairly slippery, but perhaps I will get to a debunking post later. However, I've wasted too much time already on this.

The Evolving Brain

Most people are aware that their brains are (for the most part) split into two sides to create a right and left hemisphere. Furthermore, it is fairly common knowledge that (once again, for the most part) the right part of your body is controlled by the left side of your brain, and the left side of the body is controlled by the right side of the brain. This is more succinctly known as contralateral control. When signals to and from the brain do not cross over to opposite sides, it is instead known as ipsilateral control. What I have never heard a good explanation for, however, is why the human nervous system is primarily set up utilizing contralateral control. It seems to simply add an unnecessary complication to an already ridiculously complicated system. There is, of course, the possibility that contralateral and ipsilateral control offer virtually no selective difference to an organism, and it is therefore a 50-50 random chance sort of thing that just happened to end up favouring contralateral. However, that is a rather boring answer, and, like I said, leaves out the fact that contralateral is at least a small bit more complicated than ipsilateral, meaning there just might be something that made that complication actually worth while.

When my neuroscience professor mentioned Mauthner cells in one of my lectures, I realised that perhaps I had an answer. There is a reflex in fish and tadpoles called the Mauthner Cell C-Reflex. The Mauthner cell is the largest vertebrate neuron and it is activated by tactile stimulus to a creature's head. The signal from the Mauthner cell then innervates muscles on the opposite side of the body, quickly turning the head away from the stimulus for the fastest possible escape. Thus, here is a system in which there is a tremendous difference between contralateral and ipsilateral control. An ipsilaterally wired Mauthner cell would be a very bad thing, since it would turn its creature towards rather than away from the stimulus (which might very well be a predator).

Therefore, I wonder if the Mauthner Cell C-Reflex (or whatever reflex system was the precursor to it) was the first contralateral system in the vertebrate nervous system. Once it was wired up contralaterally, the whole somatosensory system followed, which of course led to other things until virtually the entire organism's nervous system was set up with contralateral control. By the time we crawled out of the oceans and lost our Mauthner cells it was too late to straighten things out.

Of course, this is just idle wondering into the murky evolutionary past, but I would love at some point to see if there actually is something to it. Of course, like most of my idle ideas, I will likely never actually get around to looking into it, but now that I've written it down, maybe it will stick with me for a rainy day when I'm in a researching sort of mood.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Case for Inter-field Knowledge...

They say that the time of the generalist has come and gone, but to me that is a sad thing. Of course, every so often some new "hot" field develops from the merging of several other fields, and the buzz word "interdisciplinary" gets thrown around a lot these days. However, it really shouldn't be just a buzz word, and I have two short anecdotes that I think make that case.

The first is a horrifying tale from my first year psychology course last summer (which I had to take so I would be able to take some of the neuroscience courses I wanted to this year). Since it was a summer course it was not actually being taught by a professor, but rather by a PhD student in developmental psychology. The first couple lectures were devoted to neuropsychology, the quaint name given to the "branch of psychology" devoted to studying the actual physical make-up of the human brain (as opposed to several of the other branches, which is basically just making stuff up that sounds vaguely plausible. That, however, is a rant for another day). Anyway, now I had spent the previous four months realising that intelligence was what I wanted to spend the rest of my life studying, so I had done some modest reading about the brain. It was nothing fancy; I think the least pop-science style book I had read pertaining to the brain was Oxford Press's A Very Short Introduction to the Brain. Anyway, I make this clear because I want to point out how absolutely rudimentary my knowledge of neurophysiology was at this point. Imagine my surprise, then, when this young lady gets up in the front of the class and proceeds to dazzle everyone with several blatantly false statements. While I was a little disgruntled when she told a student that withdrawal of a limb from a painful stimulus was not a reflex, but rather the turning and oral searching of a baby was what was meant by the term reflex (granted, she was a developmental psychologist, so she dealt with infant reflexes more than the withdrawal reflex, but she should still know the definition of the reflex arc and some of the common examples), I was far more horrified when she answered another student's question as to how the myelin sheath helped make signals travel down the axon faster by saying it was "superconducting". Leaving out the blatant misunderstanding of what is meant by superconductivity, she clearly had no clue how myelin works. And this was the lady standing at the front of a class of several hundred students answering questions like she knew what she was talking about, because she was planning to get her PhD in a field that at least tangentially claims to study the brain.

How can a person possibly hope to bring insight to the question of how the brain develops and mediates thought without at least a rudimentary understanding of the underlying hardware? There is a reason they make computer science and software engineering students study digital electronics and lower level languages than Java or Python, because if you don't understand the underlying architecture of a system you are left writing all your MatLab scripts with for loops and uninitialized matrices rather than matrix algebra and left wondering why your program takes hours or even days to run.

Anyway, I had planned originally to also mention how my neuroscience textbook prompted this entire post because of its blatant reference to species selection at the beginning of the chapter on sexual selection, and I was going to spend some time dwelling on the importance of understanding evolution in all its brilliantly nuanced glory when doing anything in the life sciences (including neuroscience), but instead I seemed to have gone on a little too long with my rant about the lack of knowledge of my psychology lecturer. Clearly, I still bore an intellectual grudge.

Perhaps, though, I am being a little too harsh, since this very weekend an intellectual travesty far worse than what I have just described is going to be gracing selected theatres across this continent.

Also, please note that the majority of my "scientific" links were to various Wikipedia pages. I recognise that Wikipedia most certainly is not a scientific source, but the point I was making was how non-specialized this knowledge really is.

Monday, April 14, 2008

It made me chuckle...

A little facetious, but it made me smile.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

I want someone elite...

Apparently, Obama has said some things that are being pounced upon by his opponents, especially Clinton, as being "elitist". I am sorry, but these people are campaigning to be President, a position of the highest executive power in the United States of America. I would think being an elite, highly educated, intelligent person would be a good thing. I would think you would want to vote for someone you would want running the country, not someone you could relate to and sit about drinking a beer with. Leaving out the fact that what Obama said was true (that there are people embittered towards American politics who cling to divisive issues that they can use to blame their problems on), he didn't even say it in the most offensive way he could have. He didn't mention the ignorance that is responsible for much of the feelings on guns, religion, and anti-immigration among those embittered people. The fact that Obama can see faults and shortcomings of his country is one of the best things I think I have seen in American politics since I began paying attention a decade ago, because that means if he becomes President he will try to fix them to make his country into a better place. He might actually try to do something about the ignorance and bigotry that is so rampant in many parts of the country. And, of course, there is the fact that everyone seems to be campaigning about "change". But the simple fact is you cannot honestly campaign about change when you think the American way of life is the most blessed way of life possible and should stay exactly the same.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Delayed Whooshings are the Best

I have had an extremely lucky week (other than having my birthday fall in the middle of one of the worst weeks of the year, so that all the "Happy birthday, hope you have a great day!" comments only sounded cruelly ironic as I fought with MatLab all night in the computer lab). That luck came in the form of having two of my three final major assignments for the term get new deadlines three days after the original. Even more glorious, the one that did not get extended had its due date incorrectly recorded on the initial course syllabus three days earlier than it was actually due. This was something I did not discover until the morning of the day that I thought it was due, so it was, in effect, like an extension. So three extensions for three major assignments (and each by three days! Normally I'm not a fan of the number three, but I think in this circumstance the beautiful symmetry of three for three by three overcomes any distaste for the number itself). What a wonderful thing! If I could actually delude myself into thinking all assignments were due several days before they actually were (and then, of course, discover the day before what was the true due date), I think I would be a happier person. Therefore, I have to conclude that the best deadline is one which is three days before the real deadline, and hence the whooshing sound one hears is in actuality only the approach.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Mission Statement

While I doubt many people will be reading this for a fair while (if ever), I should outline what I intend to do write about. I intend to write about the things that I find fascinating, clever, interesting, and, though I will endeavour to keep this last part to a minimum, annoying. Such things that fall into the happy set of categories include science, mathematics, games, politics (when it isn't depressing), and much more. Such things that fall into the unhappy category include scientific ignorance and politics (when it is depressing). As the name of this blog may suggest, I study computational neuroscience. Thus, the main area of focus will probably be within the realms of artificial intelligence and neuroscience.

Anyway, hopefully it will be interesting (more interesting than this post), and not just a waste of cyberspace.