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19 April

I have been using python for about 4 years, since my sabbatical in Palo Alto. I started teaching it in a systems programming a year or two after learning it. While initially I was a bit concerned about both how stable and healthy the language would be, and how well it would be accepted. Well, python is clearly becoming a very prevalent and popular language.

The students in my class really like it. In 15 years of teaching, I
don't think I have seen a language embraced this enthusiastically before.

Why is it so good? I think the manner it enforces indentation helps. I think the fact it's a scripting language helps. Also, there are a few data structures and operators are well delivered and that have a huge impact. In particular, I think the support for
slicing and dictionary (hash) data structures are really important. Type conversion is done well.

Python does have flaws and limits:

  • For large projects, the flexibility it allows can faciliate hidden
  • It does less compile-time analysis than langauges like C, Java, and C++ so there is a greater risk of obvious bugs being hidden
    undetected in code paths that haven't be tested. This is a serious issue for a big project.
  • A problem with object-oriented langauges, in my opinion, is losing track of where things are inherited from (and this is even worse with multiple inheritance). Python allows a constuct of
    the form import XX from YY where the name XX
    can be used in a module without a qualifier [i.e you can say XX(3) instead of YY.XX(3)]. This can make small modules a bit easier to write, but it's a really really bad idea if you want to create maintainable code.

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
21 April

Is machine intelligence possible?

I am writing some general thoughts (for CNN International) about my belief in the eventual development of genuinely intelligent machines. I have little doubt that this will happen, and I suspect it will happen within my lifetime. I do not believe that machine intelligence will suddenly emerge, but that it will incrementally develop just as biological intelligence struggled to evolve in fits and starts through the evolutionary tree. That said, there are resons to believe that there may be a distinct threshold above which intelligence can be clearly manifested. Even humans took a long time to capitalize on the biological wetware (our brains) once it evolved -- it appears there was a long period in which human behaviour was only incrementally distinginguishable from that of their biological predecessors, and the intelligence we identify with sprang up partly as a cultural phenomenon in the last several tens of thousands of years (see "The Dawn of Human Culture").

In fact. many of what were once the benchmarks for intelligence have been reached or surpassed by machine systems: arithmetic, the game of checkers, therom proving, checkers, planning, basic visual processing and speech understanding (not language understanding). So far, this just means that our original benchmarks were too simple, but it also suggests that computer systems are gradually encroaching on what it means to be intelligent.

How will the advent machine intelligence make us feel? Well, how do we feel about the fact that long division (which was once the sole province of the intellectual elite) can be better performed by disposable calculators? My own comments need to wait for another day. Alan Kay, however, has a nice comment on this:
"Some people worry that artificial intelligence will make us feel inferior, but then, anybody in his right mind should have an inferiority complex every time he looks at a flower." (I organized a visit by Alan here to McGill a few years ago. I think he has a policy of making pithy epigrammatic statements.)

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
24 April

Extreme penalties for copyright infringement proposed in US by Sensenbrenner

The Digitial Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) in the USA is already a repressive body of legislation that stifles innovation concentrates wealth at the expense of personal freedoms. Now an even more oppressive piece of legislation is being proposed that will allow extreme penalties as well as actions without due process against people who make unauthorized copies. The penalties for making posting over $1000 if material online include 10 years in prision. This would become possible as part of a proposal to define a new crime related to copyright infringement. (Draft document here, PDF). Take a look, for comparison, at the penalty for stabbing somebody or punching a grocery clerk in the face. This sugests that there are forces in the USA that would like to shift the value system from protecting life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to protecting vested interests, big companies and the rich. Don't let this happen!

In Canada, it's getting closer. See the more recent post on this site.

You should also note that in addition to the DMCA and this...

legislation, the switch to mandated digital broadcasting is coming to the US (in 2009) as well as the broadcast flag. The net effect will be almost complete control over what people can watch and record. Not only will this drastically change the manner in which information is stored and shared, but it also consolidates the control and economic power of large media organizations. It has been a right and a natural ability for some time for people to record what the observe and experience, and make archival copies that they could review and/or share.

On top of all that, once there is extreme control over what can be recorded and played back, what prevents revisionist history or post-hoc suppression of events or documents? This is a bad and frightening precedent.

Related material:

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
28 April

What can you or should you put on your web site?

In the novel 1984 George Orwell had a prescient vision of the risks posed by information technology to society. It was published by in 1950 when TV barely existed and the world supply of computers could be counted on the fingers of one hand. On one hand, the fact that Orwell could envision oppression via technology shows how visionary and brilliant he was, on the other hand, it shows how natural and obvious the oppressive instict is in human beings. Long before the computers, surveillance and data mining, people could see where things might lead. Considering this natural tendence to impose control, we must remain constantly on guard against the tendency to oppress and limit freedom, especially as it becomes easier with technology. What makes this intersting and challenging, however, is that in our desire to avoid oppression we must also be careful not to swing the other way towards nihilism, anachy and a loss of values -- a charge equally apt in today's world. Some "oppression" is a good and necessary force. Each one of us must constantly suppress various urges every moment, starting with the simple bilogical imperatives.

That middle ground between self expression and freedom on one hand, and quality, taste, value and coherence on the other is impossible to determine in a universal manner. To find that middle ground should be a constant struggle. I believe that if you believe you have really found it, then you gave given up thinking about it and now risk going too far one way or another. The culture we live in has developed values and judgement partly as a distillation of many years of reflection, and these are often glibly discarded without much reflection. On the other hand, the quite below is also quite apt.

"However, the most important resistance to 1984 is that of each citizen in his own life. The repudiation of conformism, of the rampant complacency, of the fear of offending, and of political correctness and a skeptical attitude toward the received truth of our times will go a long way in distancing us from 1984.

Ultimately, 1984 is a society that negates the ideals of freedom of thought, personal independence and conscience. These are precisely the values each of us must adopt. The repudiation of conformism, of the rampant complacency, of the fear of offending, and of political correctness and a skeptical attitude toward the received truth of our times will go a long way in distancing us from 1984.

Ultimately, 1984 is a society that negates the ideals of freedom of thought, personal independence and conscience. These are precisely the values each of us must adopt." -- Julius Grey

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
12 May

At last, and Apple store will open in Montreal. Itr's opening in the Carrefour Laval, a shopping plaza far from downtown, but at least there will be one around here. The best Apple stire around here were the BMac chain, which closed in about 2004. In the last year or two Apple specialty stores have been hard to find in Montreal with the best options being the university computer stores (McGill, Concordia), which may not sell to the general public, or a new store downtown (near the big Future shop). The awful selection of products at Compusmart and Microserv have been a frustration for a long time.

The store opening rumor seems to be definite because Apple itself has a job posting as follows:

Title: Directeur de boutique
Req. ID: 2566148
Location: Montreal Carrefour Laval-R207, Quebec
Country: Canada
Req Date: 09-Feb-2006

By Gregory Dudek at | Read (1) or Leave a comment |    
05 August

Version 1.5 of the Aqua amphibious robot was tested in a pool for a second time and can swim and navigate efficiently. In fact, it looks substantially superior to it's predecessor. It's fast and turns well, and the yaw behavior seems especially nice (although we don't have numerical data yet). The new model is still having problems with firewire video, but it seems to be an issue with the fiber optic MUX or cables, as opposed to the Point Grey cameras and/or the computing subsystems.

The video problems has caused some grief, especially since we have some very interesting vision algorithms to test. Further, we scheduled to do open water experiments again really soon and it would be good to be able to used this latest version of the robot. With luck, the problems will be figured out and resolved in a few days.

By Gregory Dudek at | Read (1) or Leave a comment |    
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