Friday, September 19, 2014

Declining the Despot

I can't say I was surprised when I read that 56 million credit cards were affected by a security breech at Home Despot (sic). Let that sink in for a bit... fifty million credit cards were affected... that's one credit card per person for more than one-sixth of the population of the U.S. (yeah, I know that certain people have more than one credit card, and there are international customers, but the number is mind boggling. I have a low opinion of Home Depot anyway, CEO Ken Langone is a whiny plutocrat and Republican donor who groused about Pope Francis speaking out against income equality and the indifference of the rich.

Earlier this week, I went to the independent hardware store within working distance of my home. I had a pleasant walk to the store, where I purchased an 18" fluorescent bulb. The proprietor got it off the shelf for me, and wrapped it in paper to protect it on the walk home (with detours to the bakery for a sfogliatelle and the butcher shop for a store-made black pudding and some delicious pork-and-leek sausages). All of the proprietors of the stores I visited are local people, and I consider them all friends (I've known the baker since I was a teenager).

I live in a neighborhood with a vibrant commercial district. I'd rather travel by shanks' mare to patronize stores owned by careful, attentive local people than to drive to a big box store with sub-par customer service and an abysmal attitude toward the security of their customers. Luckily for me, I have that option, unlike a lot of Americans.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Caledonian Road to Autonomy?

There's a tongue-in-cheek discussion about Scottish secession over at Roy's place. I'm agnostic on the topic, though it would be interesting to see what sort of ripple effect an autonomous Scotland would have on the rest of the United Kingdom- particularly, would Northern Ireland secede and join Scotland in a reunited Union of Dál Riata? Personally, no matter what the result of the vote is, the Scottish people should force a formal declaration exonerating Macbeth from the calumnies leveled against him.

One of the most cogent arguments for Scottish independence was put forth by political philosophers Charlie and Craig Reid:

Another argument for Scottish independence is the United Kingdom's utter failure to take the extraterrestrial threat seriously... Secretary of Defence Fay Fife is fully aware of this menace:

The program director of my great local commercial radio station played this appropriate song by the late, lamented Stuart Adamson during his shift as a DJ today:

Well, played, good sir! Well played.

The post title refers to a song by my beloved, woefully unknown Shop Assistants:

My "spider sense" tells me that Scotland will still be part of the UK tomorrow... I don't think the plutocrat class will idly allow a proper plebiscite to take place. No matter how the vote turns out, let's hope that it shakes things up so that voters, especially the teenagers allowed to vote in the election, will achieve better representation.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

So What? Owl

I'm trying to play as if I'm indifferent, but I have to confess that I am actually really jealous that one of my co-workers, the resident flashlight nerd (he has a big honking portable lamp that he could signal passenger jets at cruising altitude with), spotted an owl on the property at night:

I'm pretty sure this is a northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus), but I can't be sure. I saw one myself a couple of years back, right after sundown. It was a tiny little creature with an enchantingly pretty face. Here's a video of a bird that, according to the uploader's blurb, flew into a glass door:

While a very cute little beastie, I always cringe when people express a desire to own a wild animal like this as a pet. There are plenty of domesticated animals that need homes, and the wild animal trade is harmful to threatened species. It's a rare treat to see an animal like this in the wild, holding one captive seems like cheating.

Monday, September 15, 2014


Wow,yet another horror story involving a pro football player- and the offender insists he's not a child abuser. Here's a hint, if your family photo album looks like scenes out of Abu Ghraib, you are most certainly a child abuser.

I'm getting to the point where I not only think that Goodell should resign, I'm mow thinking that the NFL should be disbanded. Monday night spelling bees, anyone?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Beer Truck Hit My Liver

Yesterday was a Big Beer Day. Officially, it was the local merchants' association parade, and many of the merchants are purveyors of booze. I uncharacteristically took a day off on a Saturday evening. As usual, I worked the overnight, hitting the sack at 5AM and waking up in time to listen to Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! I finally hit the streets around 1AM and met a bunch of friends at one of the local taverns. I put away my first Tullamore Dew on the rocks shortly after 1PM. I was sober when I declared my undying love for the hostess, one of those breathtakingly gorgeous Tipperary girls with raven hair and blue eyes... that's the type I've always been weak in the knees for. I was also sober when I offered to buy a nun a beer- "Sister, when you took holy orders, you didn't take a vow of teetotaling." I think the reason she declined the offer was because we were in a very public setting, and the last thing she needed was a Facebook post featuring her hoisting a pint.

In an uncharacteristic moment of restraint, I declined to enter the Irish sausage eating contest (three pounds of sausages in as quick a time as possible)- I didn't want to have to call it quits early after a pork binge, and I decided that browsing from the different food vendors was the way to go. I totally missed the cannoli eating contest, which is just as well. I also exercised a modicum of restraint at the tent in front of the liquor store where a couple of lovely ladies were giving away free samples of Jameson- I had a couple of shots, but as good as Jameson is, I'm a Tullamore Dew man through and through.

The weather was drizzly, which provoked quite a bit of jocularity- it's a largely Irish neighborhood, so drizzly conditions lent an air of authenticity to the festival. There were beer tents and bars in which to take shelter when the rain picked up. I have to confess that I love to drink outdoors- being able to carry an open container of beer in the context of a good, long pup crawl is something that I enjoy immensely. I think there's a slight aura of licentiousness about drinking outside.

The best thing about the festival was that it was a great economic boost for the local businesses, which is the whole raison d'etre of the festival. The vast majority of the businesses are mom-and-pop specialty stores, which lends the neighborhood its unique character. Being able to take in the whole neighborhood with a couple of thousand of my closest friends for a whole day was a delightful experience.

Waking up today, after hours of boozing was another thing entirely... I had to check for tire tracks because it felt like a beer truck hit my liver.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Craic in the Road

Today is the fourth annual McLean Avenue Merchants' Association festival. The main thoroughfare in my neighborhood will be shut down for the day for a big party. There will be four stages for live bands and for music and dance schools- the music is great, and the talented kids can entertain their families.

I took a day off so I could show my civic pride, and drink a whole lot of beer. I love my neighborhood, and I make it a point to support my local merchants, the vast majority of whom run independent stores that produce quality products. The neighborhood is also home to a multitude of bars, which form the backbone of the district's economy. People come from all over the metro area for the craic. I plan on meeting up with a bunch of folks around noon, and I plan on being buzzed by two PM at the latest... which can easily be accomplished in this neighborhood. How many neighborhoods have their own theme song?

The crawl home isn't too far, thank goodness.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Secret Science Club Post Lecture Recap: Seeing AI's

Last night, I headed down the the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn for this month's Secret Science Club lecture, featuring Dr Rob Fergus of NYU and Facebook's Artificial Intelligence lab. Dr Fergus' lecture concerned the development of visual systems for artificial intelligences.

The lecture began with a question- can computers see and make sense of their surroundings? Dr Fergus' project is to build machines that can see with deep learning. The goal is to build intelligent machines... such machines need to be able to perceive- they need visual recognition and understanding of that which is perceived. Until recently, this problem was unsolved, interpreting images is not straightforward to a computer. The human visual system is complex, involving not only the eyes and optic nerve, but multiple parts of the brain- the pathway from eyes to decision making area of the brain is complex.

AI developers aren't copying natural visual systems because the understanding of the brain is still vague, and the "architecture" of the brain isn't the best model. Compared to computer processors, the human brain is made up of slow but parallel systems, while computers have fast but linear systems. The ideal artificial visual processor would be able to outperform nature's designs and constraints. Convolutional neural networks are the networks with special connectivity designed for computer visual systems.

The first problem of developing a visual system is image classification. Can a particular description of an image match a single label? The key to image description is making the best prediction for an image. Pixels have to receive a class label, one per image, the image and label forms a data set.

Training has to take place- a model needs to be chosen to map images to the labels- the training involves incrementally upgrading the parameters of the data sets to reduce a loss of visual function. After the training is accomplished, test data needs to be added- overly complex models can impede training.

In order to achieve Deep Learning, models with hierarchical structures need to be built. These hierarchies become increasingly complicated, building to a desired stage. The initial "layer" of the image is a simple filtered image, and each subsequent layer extracts features from the previous layer. The pixels are filtered through a non-linear dimension, and the process occurs in a "learned" direction. Multiple filters, hundreds or thousands in practice, are used to create "feature maps".

Pooling of the feature maps the occurs, serving to create invariant output despite multiple inputs... ideally, changes in the input won't result in changes to the output. As pooling increases, smaller local models accumulate, with higher convolution layers adding up to a whole picture.

Dr Fergus then gave us a brief history of this field, from 1989 to 2012. One major breakthrough occured in 2012 with the creation of the ImageNet database, which includes about 14 million images from about twenty-thousand classes. Another breakthrough was the implementation of Graphics Processing Units in visual systems. Current visual models have filters which can be retrained late in the filtering process to improve performance. The CLARIFAI image recognition system is able to autotag processed images.

The talk then proceeded to a demonstration of the different layers of filters in a hierarchy. Due to the visual component of this part of the talk, it's hard to encapsulate it in a blog post. Luckily, here's a video by Dr Fergus- the camera-work insufficiently covers the slides, but a viewer should get some idea of the different filter values:

After the lecture, some bastard asked Dr Fergus what sort of progress has been made in AIs' ability to process novel images. He indicated that this is a subject which is just now being broached- getting AI visual processing up to its present standard has been difficult enough even with labelling.

Once again, the Secret Science Club presented a fine, fine lecture. Kudos to Dr Fergus, Secret Science goddesses Dorian and Margaret, and the staff of the beautiful Bell House.