Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Children's SF and Fantasy that I Missed the First Time Around

While I was a voracious reader as a child, there were some major gaps in my reading -- children's books that I only discovered or read much later, when I had children of my own. In many cases these books, sadly, just don't "work" when you get older, although there are a few I appreciated all the more:

The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster).  When I first read this book to my own children, my initial reaction was shock -- shock that I had never even heard of it when I was a kid, and a shock of recognition -- the author's sensibility is so similar to my own that I felt like I was reading something that I could have written myself! (In fact, I did write a similar story for my 7th grade English class, called "The Land of the Numbers." Sadly, no copies survive).  Highly recommended.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Vocabulary Trivia Quiz

The "new SAT" made its debut earlier this month. Part of the redesign included a de-emphasis on obscure vocabulary words, since it is well-known that college students no longer need to read multisyllabic words.

I am sure that this loss was deeply felt by many of us, so to make up for it, I am offering a one-question vocabulary quiz for today.  Here's the question:

Which of these words is not like the other?  One of these words just doesn't belong. Which one is it? (Extra credit if you can define all of the words).

A.  Jacobite
B.  Jacobin
C.  Jacobian
D.  Jacobean

Answer after the break...

Friday, March 18, 2016

Quantum Mechanics and Board Games

While I am a fan of nearly all board games, I've just never gotten excited about Go, the subject of the most recent human-computer smackdown.  But a couple of days ago, Andre Ranchin proposed an amusing variant of Go -- one that incorporates quantum mechanics!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Will Computers ever be Self-Aware?

Will computers ever achieve a form of consciousness?  This is such a huge topic in science fiction that I cannot begin to do it justice.  The roots of the idea go all of the way back to Frankenstein.  And it bubbles up again every time there is some new milestone in artificial intelligence, such as the recent victory by AlphaGo in its match with Go champion Lee Seedol.

Personally, I think it's impossible for a computer to achieve self-awareness. Consider the Turing test, in which a computer is challenged to imitate a human in conversation. I actually wrote a computer program to mimic human interaction back when I was in high school, modeling it on the famous ELIZA program, which was supposed to imitate a psychotherapist. The remarkable thing is not that I did this back in the 1970s, writing in BASIC, but that I actually saved the output for 40 years. So here's an excerpt from my conversation with my own computer program. You'll see that the computer displays a bit of an adolescent male perspective.. The computer responses are in italics:

Computer:  Welcome to my office. What is bothering you?

Me:  I have these weird dreams.

Would you like to discuss dreams?



Because I have weird dreams.

Why do you keep talking about dreams?

Because they bother me.

I'd like to talk about dreams.

Good.  Say something intelligent for a change.


I'm tired of talking to you.

Why to you want to talk about me?

I don't.

People like you should be locked up.

You are a mere computer and have bad judgment.

Would you like to discuss computers?

Yes.  Do computers have feelings?

That's an interesting question.  What made you think of it?

Since you are a computer, you should know the answer.

I'd rather talk about computers than my answer.

What's that supposed to mean?

Why do you ask such a question?

You are so stupid.

I am not!!

Yes, you are stupid.

Yes, you are stupid, too.

I'm tired of talking.

I really don't think that you are.

How would you know?

I'm asking the questions around here, not you.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Pi Day

In honor of Pi Day, I direct your attention to this "scientific" paper, which I posted to the physics preprint arXiv on April 1, 2009:
"Time Variation of a Fundamental Dimensionless Constant".
For those of you outside the world of physics, the "arXiv" website is where most physicists post their papers while they are waiting for them to appear in a scientific journal.  It's a little-known fact that the managers of this site have tacitly allowed April Fools' Day papers to appear over the years.  You can search them out, but they are hard to find.