Anna Koop

March 9, 2011

A pox on all your semantics!

Filed under: Research

I am working on the proposal, draft 0.97885, and have been stricken by the horrible conviction that a word I have been using rather extensively should not be used at all. It’s one of those perfectly good English words whose dictionary definition(s) mean more or less what I want it to, but the technical overlay I want is contraindicated by the technical overlay it has in other fields.

In other words:
I do not think it means what you think it means
However, I think it might be very much like grounding in that nobody thinks it means what they think it means, i.e.: it’s used in many different ways.

This is not something I should be worrying about right now. I should be worrying about getting to draft 1.0.

March 2, 2011

…whose margin fades forever and forever when I move

Filed under: Research

That untravel’d country is, at this moment, the elusive complete draft. Beginning to end. No stopping for rough outlines or incomplete thoughts or external review or sentence finessing.

This is not a new goal, but I mean it this time. It’s a new framing that I hope will resolve some of the issues I’ve gotten hung up on in previous half-drafts (I have definitely thought that before).

…Push off, and sitting well in order
smite the sounding keyboard; for my purpose holds
to write beyond the intro, and the past
of all the AI stars, before I die.

It may be that the prose will bog us down.
It may be we shall touch the Final Section
and see the great conclusion, which we knew.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
we are not now that draft which in old days
moved theme and statement, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic arts,
Made weak by time and repetition, but strong in will
To write, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

ETA: Joel pointed out that this could be taken as overwrought abuse of one of my favourite poems of all time. The abuse I’ll cop to. I deny all wrought-ness. I was smirking the whole time and have witnesses. MacArthur Park, it ain’t. I’ll never have that recipe agaaaaaaaaaain! Oh nooooooooo!

February 25, 2011

New Thesis Focus

Filed under: Research

I’m used to thinking of computing science theses being primarily: pose an algorithm, test the algorithm, analyze results. With some leeway, of course, but I’ve been trying to twist my research question into this framework: posing a way of using predictions for conceptual knowledge, testing the use . . .

And there we run into the first difficulty. I have a learning algorithm, that’s fine. But testing how well something does for conceptual knowledge? Turns out that’s an ill-defined question. How the tests are run is heavily influenced by assumptions about the nature of knowledge, and there is very little cross-communication between different approaches.

Thus a shift in my thesis topic.

I’m still interested in the use of predictions for conceptual knowledge, what I’ve been calling my empirical knowledge representation. But for my thesis, I need to do some thorough groundwork first.

Rob (from ASC, super helpful) used the phrase “comparing, analyzing, and synthesizing different approaches”. That’s what I need to do. I need to lay out some of the old stand-bys and new upstarts in front of me and say “look, you agree on this! And you disagree on this, because of this different emphasis or that assumption. But we can still be friends, because we both care about this similar result!”

In other words, my computing science thesis has turned into a particularly tricky kind of humanities thesis. But would it ever be helpful to succeed at this task, to bring some clarity to the murky waters of knowledge representation ACROSS ideologies.

And I will still have math formulas and experimental implementation. I’m not that far gone. But I’m tired of brushing over this lack of clarity. Let’s do some science, right at the root of the problem.

February 12, 2011

Playing to your strengths, fixing your weaknesses

Filed under: Hobbies,Research

I just finished listening to the Authentic Happiness audiobook (tonnes of good stuff in it) and one of the points Seligman makes is about working on your strengths rather than your weaknesses. In general I think this is obvious—we’re in a fairly advanced stage of specialization and are able to work closely with people who have strengths and skills we don’t. Why not have everyone do what they’re best at? Alone on a desert island I might need to be entirely self-sufficient, but that’s neither likely nor relevant to now.

This struck me today because discipline, self-control, and determination do not come naturally to me. But enthusiasm, curiosity, and love of learning are as natural as breathing. I’ve sometimes thought I need to work mainly on the discipline, just force myself to sit my butt in the chair and start writing. But there’s another approach that has the same outcome. When, instead of saying “just make yourself do it,” I say “hmm, I wonder how the prolog guys see this issue” or “what is the best way of explaining that point?” I find myself drawn to the task at hand anyway. No discipline required. I *want* to sit down and write. All it takes is changing the mental script.

It’s like knitting: picking or throwing, ssk or slip one, knit one, pass slipped stitch over—same result in the end. So do what’s easiest for you. There is occasionally a reason to push outside your comfort zone, but if you want to get it done, why not do it the way that comes most naturally?

February 10, 2011

This is why comparative cognition rocks: sheep, not so thick after all

Filed under: Research

An article from the New Scientist about sheep being used to study Huntingtons disease. Sheep doing subtle(r than expected) discriminative learning. Relational concepts (colour of food bucket indicated by colour of cone).

Zoologger: The sharpest mind in the farmyard –environment – 09 February 2011 – New Scientist.

Disagree with the whole ranking of intelligence thing. Intelligence is not one dimension with a dot for every species. It’s a complicated spiky vague shape. No strict ordering of better and worse.

But I love identifying tasks that can and can’t be done by different species. Why these differences? All these species are surviving just fine. What makes one approach more useful than another? It jostles our assumptions about what takes smarts and what is easy.

So overall win for the article.

February 4, 2011

Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world | Video on

Filed under: Research

Fabulous talk on how we can turn the human resources of virtuoso gamers onto building a better world.

Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world | Video on

I have to say I love ideas that let people work their skills to good purpose. It takes energy and creativity to come up with ways this can happen, but it can be done. This was a cool talk from the “go IT” perspective as well as for living the good life.

February 2, 2011

Yet more on “Just WRITE already”

Filed under: Hobbies,Research

Cleaning up my inbox I ran into this link which continues the theme of being-a-writer-comes-down-to-writing. This is specifically for getting a book traditionally published, but I think it counts for academia as well.

Making Light: How To Get Published.

He starts with “To be a writer, you must write.” which is the message that is finally getting through to me after years of abusing this one. He goes on with: “Write straight through to THE END.” Heh. I think that’s particularly good advice for me, given how I’ve let perfectionism drag out the first draft of my proposal.

Next comes the multi-stage break, revise, beta-read with the intriguing “Start writing your next book. The same day. Or the very next day at the latest.” I’m thinking that is very applicable. Once I get my proposal done, I want to keep in the habit of writing every day. And I certainly have other projects I want to take on.

More nifty advice. Making Light is a most excellent blog.

January 21, 2011

Process vs. Product

Filed under: Research

or: Yet another way to get rid of writer’s block

This focus on sitting down and just writing, doing the best I can do with what I know now, can be seen as a switch from product to process. I don’t start by wondering about which section I’ll get done or principle I will refine. I start by breaking out the laptop and sitting down. And no matter what I actually do with the document—editing, free-writing, making diagrams, tracking down reference—progress has been made. And I know progress will be made tomorrow. So I will end up with a product although I never have to think about what that will be.

I think this is an advantage. Surely sometimes I need to think about the product I’m making. But it comes down much more to act of writing itself than the plan. And it stops me from tripping up over not knowing what the final product will be, or if this outline is really going to work in the end, or if this paragraph is necessary. If I have doubts about one area, work on another. If it ends up cut—oh well. It all works out in the end.

Jumping off the cliff before it’s in sight, in Julie Cameron’s terms. That’s what undue focus on product results in.

Very related to “just do the next thing” but I needed an extra jolt to get out of product-fixation.

January 19, 2011

Swimming with Dolphins

Filed under: Research

I just agreed to be on a panel about IT careers, to talk about my research. The audience is 40 Girl Guides between 11 and 17. So I got to thinking about what I found interesting at that age, which reminded me of when I decided science was for me.

Our school had a career day where they brought in a pretty wide range of people to talk about their jobs, and you picked which ones to go to based on the descriptions. I signed up for the High School teacher, Ducks Unlimited, and Marine Biologist sessions. There must have been others, but those are the ones I know. Teacher/scientist were always careers high on my list, and of course I wanted to swim with the dolphins. I blame (or thank) Madeleine L’Engle for that.

The thing I remember about the Marine Biologist was her showing a picture of a dolphin and then saying: “Yeah, we don’t really do that.” She went on to describe her research into algae. I remember pictures with dirty gallon buckets of goo and blurry Erlenmeyer flasks near lab-coated figures and a research station perched on a cliff with sea-spray drenching the windows. I remember the enthusiasm in her voice when she talked about the algae. I don’t remember many details, but I remember being convinced at the end of the day that research was for me.

So I’ll probably draw on that when I’m putting together my talk—say something about all the many interesting areas of AI research, but talk about my project and what I do each day. Maybe someone will recognize that even when it doesn’t involve magical portals and swimming with dolphins, research can be exciting and engrossing, a perfect career for them. And if not, they’ll at least see someone who loves their work.

January 14, 2011

The Most Important Tip for Writing

Filed under: Research

Try it out. Write it down. It’s the only sure way to know if it will work or get it out of the way if it isn’t going to.

I’m going through old notes and seeing how I tried a historic approach, a controversy story, a philosophical introduction—tried and ultimately rejected. But I didn’t really know what would work and what wouldn’t until I had the attempt on the page.

So, for future reference: just write.

I’m sensing a theme.

© Anna Koop & Joel Koop