Thursday, December 29, 2005

Bias at the BBC is old news: many people have written articles documenting it and there is a blog dedicated to it. Still, I've been using an old computer with as a starting page, and I've been continuously irritated by the blatantly biased coverage of Israeli-Palestinian issues over the last few weeks.

The BBC has run the following articles in the last months (among others that I do not list):

Israel plans Gaza 'aerial siege'

Israel fires missiles into Gaza

Israel delays Gaza bus link start

Israel rounds up 19 'militants'

Israel air strike kills militant

Israel bombs Hezbollah outposts

Israel resumes targeted killings

And so on. However, if you read each of these articles, you find out that the Israeli action referenced in the title comes as a response to a recent terrorist act. The 'aerial siege' comes because,

Palestinian militants have stepped up their rocket attacks since Israel withdrew from Gaza in September.
Missiles were fired into Gaza because
On Monday, a Palestinian rocket exploded near an Israeli kindergarten.

The Qassam rocket caused no injuries but went off as children were attending a Hanukkah party at a kibbutz south of Sderot, and a second rocket also fell harmlessly south of the city of Ashkelon.

Israeli artillery opened fire in response to the attack.

Confirming its missile strikes early on Tuesday, the Israeli military said it had targeted buildings used by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades group to recruit members and hold meetings.
The bus link was delayed because
Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz has agreed to resume talks on the link, but will not let it start until his concerns about security have been addressed...Israel's cabinet had suspended the talks earlier this month after a suicide bombing killed five Israelis in Netanya.
And so on. Each time, only the Israeli action is mentioned in the headline, and one has to scan the entire article to see the complete story.

To be sure, there are some stories which are appropriately titled, for example Israel strikes Gaza after rockets, but even here, to someone unfamiliar with the terms of the conflict the title is at best unclear.

In short, the headline selection makes the conflict look as if it is made up entirely of Israeli aggressive actions, even though each action described is a targeted response to a Palestinian terrorist act.

Monday, December 26, 2005

The economist has an absolutely fascinating piece on Japanese culture and robotics:

HER name is MARIE, and her impressive set of skills comes in handy in a nursing home. MARIE can walk around under her own power. She can distinguish among similar-looking objects, such as different bottles of medicine, and has a delicate enough touch to work with frail patients. MARIE can interpret a range of facial expressions and gestures, and respond in ways that suggest compassion. Although her language skills are not ideal, she can recognise speech and respond clearly. Above all, she is inexpensive . Unfortunately for MARIE, however, she has one glaring trait that makes it hard for Japanese patients to accept her: she is a flesh-and-blood human being from the Philippines. If only she were a robot instead.

Many workers from low-wage countries are eager to work in Japan. The Philippines, for example, has over 350,000 trained nurses, and has been pleading with Japan—which accepts only a token few—to let more in. Foreign pundits keep telling Japan to do itself a favour and make better use of cheap imported labour. But the consensus among Japanese is that visions of a future in which immigrant workers live harmoniously and unobtrusively in Japan are pure fancy. Making humanoid robots is clearly the simple and practical way to go.

Few Japanese have the fear of robots that seems to haunt westerners in seminars and Hollywood films. In western popular culture, robots are often a threat, either because they are manipulated by sinister forces or because something goes horribly wrong with them. By contrast, most Japanese view robots as friendly and benign. Robots like people, and can do good.

The Japanese are well aware of this cultural divide, and commentators devote lots of attention to explaining it. The two most favoured theories, which are assumed to reinforce each other, involve religion and popular culture.

Most Japanese take an eclectic approach to religious beliefs, and the native religion, Shintoism, is infused with animism: it does not make clear distinctions between inanimate things and organic beings. A popular Japanese theory about robots, therefore, is that there is no need to explain why Japanese are fond of them: what needs explaining, rather, is why westerners allow their Christian hang-ups to get in the way of a good technology. When Honda started making real progress with its humanoid-robot project, it consulted the Vatican on whether westerners would object to a robot made in man's image.

Japanese popular culture has also consistently portrayed robots in a positive light, ever since Japan created its first famous cartoon robot, Tetsuwan Atomu, in 1951. Its name in Japanese refers to its atomic heart. Putting a nuclear core into a cartoon robot less than a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki might seem an odd way to endear people to the new character. But Tetsuwan Atom—being a robot, rather than a human—was able to use the technology for good.

These sanguine explanations, however, may capture only part of the story. Although they are at ease with robots, many Japanese are not as comfortable around other people. That is especially true of foreigners. Immigrants cannot be programmed as robots can. You never know when they will do something spontaneous, ask an awkward question, or use the wrong honorific in conversation. But, even leaving foreigners out of it, being Japanese, and having always to watch what you say and do around others, is no picnic.

...AIBO, the robotic dog that Sony began selling in 1999. The bulk of its sales have been in Japan, and the company says there is a big difference between Japanese and American consumers. American AIBO buyers tend to be computer geeks who want to hack the robotic dog's programming and delve in its innards. Most Japanese consumers, by contrast, like AIBO because it is a clean, safe and predictable pet.

AIBO is just a fake dog. As the country gets better at building interactive robots, their advantages for Japanese users will multiply. Hiroshi Ishiguro, a robotocist at Osaka University, cites the example of asking directions. In Japan, says Mr Ishiguro, people are even more reluctant than in other places to approach a stranger. Building robotic traffic police and guides will make it easier for people to overcome their diffidence.

Karl MacDorman, another researcher at Osaka, sees similar social forces at work. Interacting with other people can be difficult for the Japanese, he says, “because they always have to think about what the other person is feeling, and how what they say will affect the other person.” But it is impossible to embarrass a robot, or be embarrassed, by saying the wrong thing.
From the technical point of view, though, it is unlikely that the optimistic visions described in this article will materialize in the near future. So far, people have not been able to make robots perform well at typically human tasks, i.e understanding speech, recognizing objects (beyond a few crude classes), and so on. All the robots currently in existence basically repeat a few pre-programmed motions in some pre-specified, possibly random, order - i.e. industrial robots for manufacturing, robotic dogs. This seems to be the limit of our current abilities and there is only so far you can go with that.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

I'm ready to believe that indoctrination by liberal professors is a problem in many American universities; today's Times runs a story about it. However, the examples in the article are a little underwhelming:

Mr. Nelson, now a graduate student at the University of Connecticut, said in an interview that the teacher frequently called on him to defend his conservative values while making it clear he did not care for Republicans.

"On the first day of class, he said, 'If you don't like me, get out of my class,' " Mr. Nelson said. "But it was the only time that fall the course was being offered, and I wanted to take it."
Teachers say this sort of thing all the time. If you want to take the class, you ought to be OK from the start with the way its going to be taught, and teachers often make that clear. As for the teachers political views, I hardly see how merely knowing them is problematic. In fact, if the class subject touches on political themes, it may be more honest for teachers to be frank upfront about what their political views are.

Marissa Freimanis said she encountered a similar situation in her freshman English class at California State University, Long Beach, last year. Ms. Freimanis said the professor's liberal bias was clear in the class syllabus, which suggested topics for members of the class to write about. One was, "Should Justice Sandra Day O'Connor be impeached for her partisan political actions in the Bush v. Gore case?"

"Of course, I felt very uncomfortable," Ms. Freimanis, who is a Republican, said in an interview.
This is plainly ridiculous: she should have just written an essay that argued the answer was "no." If she is made uncomfortable by an essay question which leaves her completely free to choose her answer, then chances are she is going to be uncomfortable quite often in her life, and theres not much anyone can do about it.

Today's Times has an article about anti-immigration Congressman Tom Tancredo:

For nearly a decade, Representative Tom Tancredo, Republican of Colorado, has been dismissed by his critics as little more than an angry man with a microphone, a lonely figure who rails against immigration and battles his own president and party.

So radical were his proposals - calling for a fence along the United States border with Canada, for instance - and so fierce were his attacks on fellow Republicans who did not share his views that many of his colleagues tried to avoid him. Mr. Tancredo said Karl Rove, President Bush's senior adviser, had told him not "to darken the doorstep of the White House."

But last week, the man denounced by critics on the left and on the right suddenly emerged as an influential lawmaker. Pressured by conservative constituents angered by the continuing flow of illegal immigrants into the United States, Republicans rallied around Mr. Tancredo to defy the president and produce the toughest immigration legislation in more than a decade.

Mr. Tancredo and his allies fought successfully to strip the measure of any language offering support for Mr. Bush's plan to provide temporary legal status for illegal immigrants working in the United States. And he helped win support for provisions that once seemed unthinkable to many lawmakers, like the construction of five fences across 698 miles of the United States border with Mexico.

Mr. Tancredo did not get everything he wanted. He still wants a moratorium on legal immigration, soldiers on the border, a longer fence (and one along the border with Canada) as well as a law that would deny citizenship to children born to parents who are not citizens or permanent residents. And many Republicans and Democrats say it seems unlikely that the border security bill passed by the House last week will become law in its current form, if it ever becomes law at all.

But as a jubilant Mr. Tancredo returned to his office here this week, there was little doubt that he had become a symbol of the ascendancy of deeply conservative thinkers in the bitter Republican debate over immigration policy....

The border security measure would make it a federal crime to live in the United States illegally, which would turn millions of immigrants into felons, ineligible to win any legal status. The bill would make it a crime for employees of social service agencies and church groups to shield or offer support to illegal immigrants.

The legislation would also require the mandatory detention of some immigrants, would withhold some federal aid from cities that provide immigrants with services without checking their legal status and would decrease the number of legal immigrants admitted annually by eliminating a program that provides 50,000 green cards each year.

"This is a gesture to the xenophobic wing of the party, and that is alarming," said Cecilia Muñoz, a vice president at the National Council of La Raza. "It threatens extraordinary harm to people."
Well, some of Tancredo's proposals are clearly clearly nonsense. A fence on the border with Canada? A moratorium on legal immigration? Theres no faster way to run the US high tech and research industries into the ground. One only has to walk into the offices of most high tech companies in the United States - or most research labs - to observe that a minority of the people who work there were born in the United States. Preventing people from being born in the United States from becoming US citizens? It would turn the US into a miniature version of some European countries (e.g. Germany) with a substantial population of second-class noncitizens.

Even some of the provisions in the passed bill are offensive. A law to prevent church groups from aiding illegal immigrants? I don't know the details of this, but it sounds like an obvious violation of personal freedoms. A cut in the amount of green cards issued to immigrants already here legally? Perhaps such a move is justified, but Tancredo's anti-immigration rants do not provide any good reasons.

On the other hand, many of provisions in the passed bill seem to make good sense. Why is a fence on the border with Mexico an unreasonable proposal? Fences of this sort have proven to be good at preventing inflitration across the border - see the Israeli security fence for example. As for some of the other measures, should not the government use every means at its disposal to find illegal immigrants and to deport them?

Its somewhat surprising that one cannot find politicians with reasonable views on immigration in the US political landscape. On the one hand, you have politicians like Tancredo, who rail against immigration, making no distinction between legal and illegal immigrants. Fueled primarily by xenophobia, they manage to make minor successes here and there, though never much on the national stage where both parties compete for the votes of hispanics. On the other hand, you have some politicians who are friendly to immigration, but unwilling to get tough on the flow of illegal immigration across the border.

Friday, December 23, 2005

This report from from the UN end-of-the-year press conference is mildly amusing:

...James Bone, New York correspondent of The Times... questioned Mr Annan about a Mercedes jeep that his son, Kojo, imported into Ghana using his father’s diplomatic immunity to avoid taxes.

“I think you’re being very cheeky,” [Annan] exclaimed, and continued: “Listen, James Bone, you’ve been behaving like an overgrown schoolboy in this room for many, many months and years. You are an embarrassment to your colleagues and to your profession. Please stop misbehaving.”

Monday, December 19, 2005

There is a very interesting interview with Alain Connes online. Connes, a renowned French mathematician, has some intriguing things to say on how a scientific research system is ought to be run.

Here is Connes describing his own education:
GBK: Do you have a good memory of Ecole Normale?

Connes: Sure! I can tell you what happened when I entered Ecole Normale in 66. I was coming from Marseille and had undergone two years of preparatory
school which was “bourrage de cranes”. We were learning how to calculate integrals, drawing garphs of functions etc.. and I was fed up with it. When
I arrived in Ecole Normal essentially I took one year off. It was like a hotel in Paris and we had fun, except that we were discussing mathematics all the
time with the other students. After that year I started working on my own research.

GBK: You didn’t have to take courses?

Connes: I didn’t go to any classes and didn’t know where the university was, so when I had to take the exam my friend had to take me to the exam room and I
saw the university for the first time!

GBK: So it was a leisure time!

Connes: No, it was not leisure it was freedom, it was some kind of reaction against the preparatory schools in which we were taught recipes to pass exams. I
just wanted to think quietly by myself and enjoy life of course, and that was given to us in Ecole Normale.

GBK: it was before 1969?

Connes: I entered in the fall of 66 and then came the events of 1968.

GBK: That was a turbulent time.

Connes:Yes 68 was a turbulent time. We had already built the right kind of mood for 68.

GBK: So your were in Paris in the best place and in the best time.

Connes: Yes it was a good time. I think it was ideal that we were a small group of people and our only motivation was pure thought and no talking about careers. We couldn’t care the less and our main occupation was just discussing mathematics and challenging each other with problems. I don’t mean ”puzzles” but problems which required a lot of thought, time or speed was not a factor, we just had all the time we needed. If you could give that to gifted young people it would be perfect.

GBK: For how many years were you there?

Connes: For 4 years, but as I said the first year was a free year and then I had to pass aggregation and I refused. I was one of the two people who refused to
undergo that exam because I didn’t want to go back to school time since I had barely managed to survive that before.

Here is Connes talking about the American university system:
GBK: You prefer the European approach to mathematics.

Connes: Of course. You know if I had been in the US I would have been obliged to enter into a system which I don’t like at all. But it was not for this reason that I refused to go. I had accepted a position in College de France 6 months earlier and of course I was not going to move to another place after that.

GBK: But you prefer the European system.

Connes: Of Course.

GBK: They say that European system is very good for heroes but it’s not for little guys for ordinary mathematicians.

Connes: In France we have a marvel which is the CNRS. It’s a place where gifted people can get positions that they can keep for the rest of their lives. The
main point is that it makes it possible for people like Lafforgue to think for many years about a problem without having to produce n papers per year and apply for an NSF grant. Young people can invest in long term projects which they could never do in a system with a short time unit.

GBK: This may work for some people and may backslash for others because they go there and do nothing for years.

Connes:You cannot decide before hand whom will be a Lafforgue and you will almost automatically have other people that will produce very little. It’s a rule. It is the price to pay to eliminate this pressure to write n papers per year which is nonsense in subjects which are really difficult. It takes 5-6 years to learn such a subject and you don’t produce anything in that long interval. The French system is extremely efficient in that sense that it gives to some people the ability to work without being constantly bugged by the need to produce a paper. It is totally different from other systems but it is successful. Most of the CNRS researchers in mathematics are very interesting and productive mathematicians. The only problem is that there is not enough communication with universities and I’ve been trying to change that for many years. There is not enough flexibility to exchange between CNRS
and the universities.

GBK: So what about the money to do research, to travel to do these things? All these things come from CNRS?

Connes: There is very little money available to travel and a lot of bureaucracy to get that little amount from CNRS.

GBK: Your salary is paid by the CNRS.

Connes: I am at College de France now and get my salary from there.

GBK: And that is not fixed you get promotions.

Connes: No, it is fixed.

GBK: No increases? no raise?

Connes: There is a maximum which one quickly attains. If you want the French system is not based on money but it might change. Intellectuals have for long cultivated a profound despise for money which at least was very present in my generation. When for example I applied to CNRS I applied for a low rank position because I cared so much more for “time” than for money.

MK: What you are saying is very relevant to here because here in Iran they are trying to build research institutes and grant systems and it is important to
take note of different systems that are available in the world and choose the one that is more appropriate.

Connes: I believe that the most successful systems so far were these big institutes in the Soviet union, like the Landau institute, the Steklov institute, etc. Money did not play any role there, the job was just to talk about science. It is a dream to gather many young people in an institute and make sure that their basic activity is to talk about science without getting corrupted by thinking about buying a car, getting more money, having a plan for career etc.... Of course in the former Soviet Union there were no such things as cars to buy etc so the problem did not arise. In fact CNRS comes quite close to that dream too, provided one avoids all interference from our society which nowadays unfortunately tends to become more and more money oriented.

GBK: You were criticizing the US way of doing research and approach to science but they have been very successful too, right? You have to work hard to get tenure, and research grants. Their system is very unified in the sense they have very few institutes like Institute for Advanced Studies but otherwise the system is modeled after universities. So you become first an assistant professor and so on. You are always worried about your raise but in spite of all these hazards the system is working.

Connes: I don’t really agree. The system does not function as a closed system. The US are successful mostly because they import very bright scientists from
abroad. For instance they have imported all of the Russian mathematicians at some point.

GBK: But the system is big enough to accommodate all these people this is also a good point.

Connes:If the Soviet Union had not collapsed there would still be a great school of mathematics there with no pressure for money, no grants and they would be more successful than the US. In some sense once they migrated in the US they survived and did very well but I believed they would have bloomed better if not transplanted. By doing well they give the appearance that the US system is very successful but it is not on it’s own by any means. The constant pressure for producing reduces the “time unit” of most young people there. Beginners have little choice but to find an adviser that is sociologically well implanted (so that at a later stage he or she will be able to write the relevant recommendation letters and get a position for the student) and then write a technical thesis showing that they have good muscles, and all this in a limited amount of time which prevents them from learning stuff that requires several years of hard work. We badly need good technicians, of course, but
it is only a fraction of what generates progress in research. It reminds me of an anecdote about Andre Weil who at some point had some problems with elliptic operators so he invited a great expert in the field and he gave him the problem. The expert sat at the kitchen table and solved the problem after several hours. To thank him, Andre Weil said “when I have a problem with electricity I call an electrician, when I have a problem with ellipticity I use an elliptician”.

From my point of view the actual system in the US really discourages people who are truly original thinkers, which often goes with a slow maturation at the technical level. Also the way the young people get their position on the market creates “feudalities” namely a few fields well implanted in key universities which reproduce themselves leaving no room for new fields.

GBK: In the US there are so many mathematicians. Their system produces about 1200 new PhD’s a year.

Connes: And they can’t find a position unless they belong to a field with the stamp
of approval.

GBK: This is massive! astronomical!

Connes: But the problem is that whether or not they will find a position depends on
whom will write their recommendation letters. I am not saying what kind of letter they will get since all these letters look alike in their emphatic style. The result is that there are very few subjects which are emphasized and keep producing students and of course this does not create the right conditions for new fields to emerge. At least in France, if you have a position in CNRS you are allowed to do whatever you want and people are given the maximum freedom of thinking without any unhealthy social pressure to work in this or that field if one wants to secure one’s future!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Just another day in Bushville!