10 Random Things About 10 Random Things

For my first post on the Terry project, I thought I’d riff on the popular chain-letter currently infecting Facebook profiles everywhere. But rather than write about myself (a subject less interesting than any of the items on the following list) I thought I’d write about 10 cool ideas which are currently rattling around my brain. Feel free to continue this modified version of the meme!

(Modified) Rules: Once you’ve been tagged, you are supposed to write a note with 10 random things, facts, or ideas about something OTHER than yourself. At the end, choose some people to be tagged. You have to tag the person who tagged you. If I tagged you, it’s because I want to know more about your thoughts.

1. Though it is cliché to say, I really do not often pay attention to chain-letters. This one caught my attention for two reasons – first that it was so popular, and secondly that it turned up in different unconnected parts of my social web within a very short period of time. I was intrigued that the meme could spread to so many disparate social groups so quickly. I realized that this was just one more example of the Small World Phenomenon – a property of sufficiently connected graphs such as social networks, wherein the average path length between any two nodes is surprisingly small. This phenomenon underlies popular games such as “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” or the more modern “Six Degrees of Wikipedia“.

2. About 20 minutes from the time of writing this (meaning it will have long since passed by the time I post this), UNIX time will read 1234567890. UNIX time, a count of the number of seconds since midnight UTC on January 1, 1970, is the system of time-counting used by UNIX-like computer systems. That means you Mac and GNU/Linux users, and likely the webserver on which the Terry site is hosted. This “cool” event is (as far as I can tell) the last significant number which will occur before UNIX time suffers it’s own version of the Y2K-problem at 03:14:07 UTC on Tuesday, 19 January 2038. (Update: WOOHOOOOO!)

3. Pangolins are pretty awesome. I first learned about them watching a random nature documentary on the BBC over winter holidays (thanks, David Attenborough!). They are independently evolved ant eaters whose fur have fused into a scaly shell, with powerful digging claws for attacking termite colonies. They also have the largest tongue-body ratio of any animal – now that’s impressive.

4. I’m annoyed by the chauvinism some philosophers apply to discussions of intelligence and consciousness. The best definitions we seem to be able to come up with for intelligence are based around certain capabilities that are apparent in humans. But as soon as a computer system is designed which has that capability, the definition of intelligence is refined to exclude that capability! Some philosophers (ie. Searle) go so far as to say that even if a computer system were functionally and empirically indistinguishable from a human, it would not be intelligent or conscious. How much more human-centric can one get? This comic (from Ray Kurzweil) sums it up nicely (click picture for larger version):


5. If you mess around with statistics for long enough you learn some pretty surprising things. For instance, take the problem of Authorship Attribution, which is an area of Artificial Intelligence research where you try to determine the author of a particular anonymous text by comparing it to a corpus of writing from several different authors. Intuitively, you might think that the best way to do this would be to examine the grammatical and semantic structure of the piece, the words used, etc. But in fact, the some of the most successful approaches do something much less literary, much more statistical. What you do is count each bigram – combinations of two letters (so for example the word “write” would yield the bigrams set {wr, ri, it, te}). Measuring the relative frequencies of each bigram used, you get a “fingerprint” for each piece and each author. Comparing how close the fingerprint of the anonymous piece is to the fingerprints of the various authors is one of the best current ways to attribute authorship. Who woulda thunk it! (source1, source2[pdf])

6. Renaissance astronomer (and webcomic namesake) Tycho Brahe was long thought to have died in a pretty hilarious way. The story goes that he was at a banquet and really needed to go to the bathroom, but felt it would be rude to leave before the dinner was finished. The subsequent bladder infection was thought to have been the cause of his death. Recent research, however, has overturned this legend in favour of mercury poisoning and a possible murder plot. History is cool!

7. This is an amazingly clever application of simulated annealing. Here’s me after about 5 hours:


8. Most people don’t know this, but Alan Turing, widely considered the founder of modern computer science, was homosexual. He was prosecuted for this under the laws of the time, forced to undergo hormone-therapy, and ultimately committed suicide by ingesting an apple laced with cyanide. The old Apple Computers logo (rainbow apple with a bite missing) is thought to be a reference to this, though this has never been confirmed.

9. No matter how unlikely it seems, I secretly hold out hope that P=NP.

10. It is very important that people hear about the issue of Net Neutrality. What makes the internet such a valuable construct is that anyone can post anything they want and it their data will be given equal priority to all else. But recently, ISPs have been threatening to change this situation by – for example- giving faster data rates to websites who pay them for the privilege. The end result of this could be a situation where the internet becomes like cable TV – you pay for a subscription package which gives you access only to a certain set of websites, and have to pay extra to see other sites. For more information on the legal process relating to this in Canada see: http://saveournet.ca/

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Nicholas is a senior undergraduate majoring in Cognitive Systems (Computational Intelligence stream). He enjoys a wide spectrum of intellectual pursuits from programming to philosophizing. As well as writing for the Terry project, he maintains a private blog, and a personal home page. His long-term goals include earning his Ph.D, and crushing all life beneath the iron-clad heel of his merciless robotic cohort.