Friday, April 29, 2005

20 Questions

I came across this site that I find fairly interesting. If you click on the 'play 20q' link, (you don't need to give out any information about yourself, just click play), the computer starts to ask you questions about an object. I found that it guessed hamburger (it guessed cheeseburger, but close enough), duck-billed platypus, and motorcycle within the 20 questions.

Apparently the system learns from other users, so it is continually readjusting itself, and adding new objects. Isn't this kind of what we do when we learn? We observe the world, and give different objects different characteristics as we interact with them. We decide that a puppy is soft and warm, and a kick in the teeth is not. We classify this information and recall it when we need to.


Sunday, April 24, 2005

The Gem State

I came across this gem, and can't determine if it's real or not. It looks like it's on an honest to goodness state site, but who knows?

Regardless, it's funny stuff.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Pass the Brownies, But Hold the E-mail

Ok, so a British Journal is reporting that using e-mail actually makes you dumber. Apparently more dumberer than if you use pot (sorry for the gramatical errors, I've been using my e-mail a lot lately).

They also mention that e-mail has "an addictive, drug-like grip".

Ok.... I think what we need here is for congress to spring into action. We need a war on e-mail. I can see it now. Pushers with black berries or PDAs, standing on a corner. A dark car pulls up, "Hey buddy, want to forward a chain-letter about the Mrs. Fields cookie recipe?" Money is exchanged, the e-mail is sent. The user drives away, just a tad bit stoopider because he has used this mind numbing program.

Wow, that would make for an exciting television drama. The Geeks in the Hood.

Is it any wonder I have a hesitancy to attempt to publish?

For those of you who have experienced the ‘rejection letter’, you may empathize with this. The academic world has become an increasingly hostile place to make a living. It must be true because it comes from a reliable source.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

A Mystery

Ok, so I have a mystery for somebody to solve. The way I see it, there are two possibilities, and I'm hoping you can help me determine which one is the more logical.

I'm on the couch last night, watching a movie on my new laptop. I suddenly hear a crash. Not a soft tinkling crash like a cat pushing over a tin of tuna, but a crash that sounded like a brick had just been thrown through our kitchen window.

I race out to investigate (sporting my Winston Churchill sleeper pajamas), and see nothing.

Eventually I notice that our 'money jar' (a fairly good sized ceramic container) has burst. Sitting next to the broken money jar is a broken coconut. Now the coconut in question was purchased by me just a few hours before, but here is the mystery, and the two possibilities.

Possibility one - Coconuts explode. My hypothesis is that the coconut burst, and was sitting next to the jar, thus breaking the jar (which again, sounded like somebody hurled the jar against the wall or something). However, I have looked on the internet, but can find nothing about coconuts exploding, thus raising serious questions. The other problem with this hypothesis is that as far as my wife and I recall, the coconut was 10 FEET AWAY FROM THE MONEY JAR! There is no way the coconut exploded, traveled across the room (both sides, and the milk), hit the money jar, without spilling any milk between point A and point B. Which leads me to the only other logical possibility.

Possibility Two - Our house is haunted. I can only surmise that some specter, in a fit of rage (maybe it didn't like our decor), threw the coconut across the room, it struck the jar, and burst both the jar, and the coconut. This would account for the very large crashing sound.

Taking into acount the use of the coconut, one can only conclude that the specter must have been Graham Chapman.

Now that I think of it, there could be a third possibility involving an African swallow, but I haven't seen any flying around the house at night.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy

Interesting article over at CNN today. Apparently a group of MIT students wrote a program that creates randomly generated ‘scientific papers’ full of gibberish. The papers looked like other academic literature, only they really didn't say anything. The students then submitted their papers to several scientific conferences and, yep, you guessed it, the paper was accepted.

Here is a quote from their paper titled, "Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy":

"the model for our heuristic consists of four independent components: simulated annealing, active networks, flexible modalities, and the study of reinforcement learning"


"We implemented our scatter/gather I/O server in Simula-67, augmented with opportunistically pipelined extensions."

The pranksters are apparently going to attempt to raise money to go to the conference and present a randomly generated speech full of gibberish.

On their site you can generate your own paper. Here is one I did that I'm quite proud of. It took me all of 1.5 seconds to type in my name so I appear as an author.

Gotta go update my vitae.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Excellent Book...

David Wiley lent me his copy of Stephen Wolfram's book, "A New Kind of Science." I've seen Dave toss books across his desk to students who may glean information from them, but there was no tossing this book. It was as large as a cinder block, and twice as heavy. The font is 2 point, but it is a fascinating read (or at least the first hundred pages are, I haven't finished it yet).

Setphen Wolfram has the entire book online, and I recomend at least the first two chapters. In fact, skim the first chapter, and read the second.

Really, it's fascinating.

Amost as fascinating as this. (be sure to click on the 7 second trial)

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Video Games

You would think that an invention that would allow people to experience taste, smell, or images might be patented by a company hoping to let the deaf hear, or the blind see.


Sony has 2 patents that they hope will someday allow you to know only kill a mutant alien, but smell his BO as well.


Sunday, April 03, 2005

Funny Disected

The book that I have coming out in June is mainly humor. My main staple is humor, and I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the subject the last year or so. While I admit it’s probably more of an art than a science, I think you can still dissect humor and try to figure out what makes some things more funny than other things.

Here are a few of my thoughts, and I would be very interested to hear if you think I’m on the right track, on the wrong track, or sitting in my car with a flat tire in the parking lot of the wrong stadium where the real track meet is occurring.

So here are a few attributes of good humor:

1 – Humor is tied very closely with fear, pain, suffering, and many other extreme emotions, most of them negative.

While that sounds a bit counter-intuitive, let me offer why I think this is true. Think of America’s funniest home videos. It is not video of people telling jokes, rather people getting kicked in the crotch, passing out at weddings, saying or doing really stupid things in front of a large crowd. They are all extreme emotions, many of which we wouldn’t wish on our enemies, but we still can’t help but laugh.

There are also the clips where a child freaks out over a Christmas present, or a grandmother-to-be flips out over the news of an impending grandchild. They go wild, and we find these extreme emotions funny.

As one last example, we have probably all seen this clip. We find it funny because it is at once embarrassing for this young man, but is also a display of raw, unfettered emotion. Personally I think we should all dance like this, at least once, in front of a lot of people.

This also explains why we find ‘potty humor’ to be funny (at least the guys do) ;). It’s taboo, so when it’s brought up, we laugh, even if it’s nervous or guilty laughter.

2 – Humor relies heavily on situation and character.

Good humor depends on the actors. For example, consider the following. Let’s say you’re watching an episode of Leave it to Beaver. We all know June Cleaver; a rock of stability amidst all of Beaver’s wild escapades. What if you were watching a show and June is shopping. A friend tells her of Beaver’s latest adventure that has embarrassed the family, and caused damage to public property. We see a close up of June’s face. She swears softly, then grabs a bag boy and says, “Excuse me, where do you keep your hard liquor?”

Now somebody turning to drink because they can’t handle problems is certainly not funny, but given the situation and the characters, it becomes funny. So the lesson learned is that humor isn’t just a punch line or two, placed here and there, often there are entire passages building characters just so that they can participate in a humorous situation. In my book, I wrote a whole extra chapter, just so I could deliver one line. It wasn’t just for the line, it also helped develop character, but you can’t just throw in one line and say you’ve got your humor quota. A lot of time and thought has to go into it.

3 – Humor has to be a surprise

A joke just isn’t funny unless you don’t see it coming. If you are able to figure out a punch line, then there is rarely laughter. There are multiple ways to help make sure there is a surprise. One way is to simply surprise the reader by bringing something out of the blue. This isn’t hard if the reader isn’t expecting the humor. So if you are writing a mystery, the first laugh is by far the easiest, but it gets increasingly difficult as you go along, especially if the humor is the same ‘type’ of humor.

Think of the TV show Home Improvement. At first it was funny when Tim the Toolman Taylor tried to ‘supe’ something up, only to have it blow up in his face. The first 2, maybe 3 times it was funny, then it was just predictable.

After you have gotten those first few easy laughs, there are ways to get the further laughter. One way is to use a different type of humor. It would be almost as funny for something that Tim worked on to actually work. The looks of surprise on family member’s faces would be funny. A completely natural thing (fixing the lawn mower, for example), can be funny because it’s a surprise.

A good example of this is the comedian Steven Wright. He speaks in a real dead pan voice. He has a joke that goes like this. “I lost my sock the other day so I called information. *laughter* She told me it was behind the couch. *more laughter*. She was right.”

The first time the audience laughed because of the punch line, but there isn’t much laughter. But then he surprises them by delivering a second punch line that is a bit absurd. Then he surprised them again by an even more absurd line. The surprises are unexpected, and hence funny.

Finally, the other way to surprise a person, after you have already surprised them, is to make the reader think have you figured out, and then pull the chair out from under them. I do this at the very end of my book (by this time the readers have probably figured out my humor, so it’s very hard to keep making things funny. I set up a joke and it’s pretty clear what the punch line is going to be. I keep driving the reader toward that conclusion, almost like magic. Watch this hand, watch this hand, watch this hand… Then bam, you hit them with the other hand they weren’t watching. So even though it was clear a joke was coming, I led them down the wrong path so that they could be surprised in the end.

Anyway, I don’t mean to say that I’m an expert at this stuff, but I do think these elements are an important part of humor. Does anybody disagree? Have any other ideas about humor? Am I missing any elements?