Joi Ito named head of MIT Media Lab

I just wanted to throw up a quick post to congratulate Joi Ito on his new position as the head of the MIT Media Lab. I first met Joi years ago through his IRC channel, which played an integral role in exposing me to the internet and its culture, and gave me a wonderful community of friends all over the world. Joi’s work is a great example of how embracing technology can make the world a better place, and I’m sure we’ll see exciting things happen during his tenure at MIT.

Update: Joi’s post about this.

CNS 2011

My trip to San Francisco was possible largely thanks to the hospitality of my best friend Rupe, who has an incredible view from his balcony.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend the Cognitive Neuroscience Society 2011 Annual Meeting in beautiful San Francisco, where my lab presented some of our recent research.

Sylvia, Dr. Mangels, & Belèn with our poster: "Task goals and achievement mindset influence attention to feedback and learning success in a challenging memory task"

This was my first time at a big academic conference, and I really had an incredible time. Few things make me happier than interesting ideas and intelligent people, and CNS provided 40 solid hours of learning and conversation which left me smiling like an idiot by the time I got on the plane back to New York. Aside from filling 25 pages of my Moleskine with notes (which I’m in the process of transcribing and putting online), the chance to talk with many of the names I’ve been reading for years was really exciting, and possible in no small part thanks to the fact that my advisor turned out to be friends with (or have worked with) almost everyone I wanted to meet. It was particularly great to chat with Roberto Cabeza, whose Attention to Memory model inspired my insight research. On a more practical level, it was really valuable to be able to talk with current graduate students in programs and labs I’m considering applying to for my PHD, and learned some important things for when it comes time to make my decision.

I’m sure I would have enjoyed the conference had I gone on my own, but it was great to be there with 5 other members of my lab. Though I met a bunch of great people at the Student Society dinner, it was really nice to always have someone I knew to grab lunch with or chat to during coffee breaks.

Equally important to having people to talk to is having people to watch your things while you collapse between sessions.

The conference went from 8am to 7pm every day, so I didn’t get much of a chance to see friends in the city, but I did experience my first authentic Mission burrito during our Lab dinner at Pancho Villa Taqueria. The foursquare tips said to get my burrito mojado (wet, thus the sauce and cheese), and it was definitely the right decision.

The horchata was also excellent.

I also rode the cable car for the first time, which I had somehow neglected to try despite all the time I’ve spent in San Francisco. I couldn’t help feeling like a monkey as I hung off the side (thanks Eddie Izzard), but it was preferable to having to walk back up Nob hill to where I was staying.

I’ll post a note with a link when I get my notes up online, but for now, I leave you with nightmare EEG baby courtesy of the EGI booth.

EEG baby knows your darkest secrets.

P.S: Tal Yarkoni, currently a post-doc at CU Boulder, is not just a talented researcher and blogger, but also a very funny man. Check out his CNS timeline for a good laugh.


Dave, who knows more than a bit about this sort of complex computer mumbo-jumbo, pointed out that Watson likely isn’t actually processing the questions semantically, but rather basing its answers on statistical relationships. Though this doesn’t significantly change the things I address in my post, its an important distinction to make.

This evening was the first airing of the long-awaited Jeopardy! match between two of the game’s most successful players and Watson, a question-parsing supercomputer developed by IBM. It’s obvious that big Blue wouldn’t have given the go ahead for an official match until they could be relatively sure of a victory (or at least holding their own), that knowledge doesn’t make watching this machine play any less impressive. At least judging from what I’ve seen, Watson seems to be pretty on-par with the best human players, if not a little bit better, though that got me wondering about how much of the computer’s ability was due to its processing, and how much benefit it got from it uniquely non-human characteristics.

Our lab does a lot of work on investigating how things like emotion, anxiety, and stress influence learning, memory, and cognition. We often do this by having study participants answer a series of general knowledge trivia questions under different experimental manipulations. Put simply, our research and that of other labs has shown that stress of being in a test environment, anxiety about getting the answers right and, and focus on negative emotion if you get an answer wrong, all contribute to a person doing significantly worse in these kind of situations than others who aren’t as stressed, worried, or sensitive to negative feedback.

Add to those relatively high-level concerns the fact that humans are easy to distract, have different reading speeds, make inconsistent muscle movements, and are subject to things like being hungry or tired. Compare these facts to a computer who never needs to eat or sleep, has only one possible goal (answering questions), and doesn’t have any feelings to be hurt or things to worry about.

Suddenly bringing a human to a trivia fight might not be the best idea.

Of course, there are many areas where humans have a leg up on our robotic competition, particularly when it comes to “creative” thinking, language use, and joking. That being said, Watson seems to be surprisingly good at the kind of word-play problems that are common on Jeopardy!, which might be a good indication of how close it is to our level of ability.

Looking at the big picture, competing on a game show is unimportant compared to the possible real-world applications of a technology like Watson. As computers become more and more able to do things historically only done by humans, an obvious question is when that all-important line is crossed and the computers are better at being us than we are.

Though there are many ways to determine where this point is, and equally as many arguments against any particular measure, lets stick with Jeopardy! for a second. The way I see it, to be better than a human at answering trivia questions, Watson only has to be as good as the best human player, at least in terms of “thinking” ability. In a game between Watson and a human champion with exactly equal semantic-processing/question-answering abilities, the computer will always win. Because Watson doesn’t care if it gets a question wrong, but Ken Jennings really doesn’t want to be beaten by a computer. Because Watson will always hit the buzzer at exactly the right time, and Joe Human might slip. For all the reasons I talked about above, Watson doesn’t have to be any smarter than a human to beat us.

How-To: Add Your Baruch Email to Gmail

For whatever reason, the higher ups at BCTC decided a few years ago that instead of using a traditional email solution, they would outsource the email accounts for all Baruch faculty, staff, and students to the horrible, terrible, awful Windows Live Mail service. So bad is the current email situation that the vast majority of students and staff don’t even use their school addresses, which can be a problem when most official Baruch communication goes to that account. Furthermore, there is no way to set the Live account to automatically forward new messages to a different address (a option which appears to have been intentionally removed by the Baruch admins).

The good news is that there’s an easy way to integrate your Baruch email into your existing Gmail account. Messages sent to your Baruch address will automatically show up in your Gmail inbox, and you’ll be able to send messages from your school address without having to log into your Baruch account.

Because not everyone feels comfortable with all this newfangled interweb stuff, I’ve outlined the steps below.

1. Log into your Gmail and click on Settings in the top-right corner.

2. Click on the Accounts and Import tab in Settings.

3. Under Check mail using POP3, click Add POP3 email account.

4. Enter your full Baruch email address. (e.g. [email protected])

5. Gmail will automatically fill in your username and select the email server settings. Enter your Baruch password.

Optional: If you want to continue accessing your Baruch email the traditional way, enable Leave a copy of retrieved messages on the server, otherwise each message will be deleted from your Baruch account once it has been downloaded to Gmail.

These are the only steps necessary if all you want is for messages sent to your Baruch address to appear in Gmail. If you also want to be able to send messages from your Baruch address from within Gmail, follow these few extra steps.

6. Also on the Accounts and Import tab of Settings, under Send mail as, click Send mail from another address.

7. Enter your Baruch email address.

8. An email with a confirmation code will be sent to your Baruch address (and should now show up in Gmail). Click the link in the email or copy the code into the set-up dialog.

8. Select Send through Gmail (The only difference between this setting and sending through the Baruch server is that some old versions of Outlook will display messages from your Baruch address sent through Gmail as “From [email protected] on behalf of [email protected]” The reasons for this have to do with the way spam filters work.)

And there you have it. No more dealing with the painful Baruch email interface, and no more missing important school emails. This process also works for other email accounts as well, not just Baruch (but obviously some of the settings would be different).

Ha Ha! Old Pictures on the Internet!

If you, like myself, are a member of that select group of internet riff-raff with their fingers on the pulse of the web’s juvenile yet creative dark corners (4chan, Fark, SomethingAwful), you’ll no doubt be familiar with this image.


Simply, for lack of a better word, classic.

My best friend Rupert Scammell, while browsing through some old pictures in an antique bookstore in San Francisco, came across this image, which though likely not the source of the original meme, is strikingly similar (and arguably even better– just look at that pose!)


As one of the creators of Schrodinger’s LOLcat, and a good netizen, I feel it my duty to try and bring some meme magic to this aging sepia-tone print.


In reference to another classic.


And finally…


Okay, so none of them are stellar, but inspiration is a fickle mistress. I’d love to see what others come up with.

District 9

Every year at Passover, Jews thank God for delivering them from slavery in Egypt. As part of the seder ceremony, songs are sung, one of which is called Dayenu. The song recounts all the miracles God performed for our wayward ancestors, one after another. The chorus, “Dayenu”, roughly translates as “it would have been enough.” Had God only sent the plagues but not parted the sea, it would have been enough. Had he sent the plagues, parted the sea, but not sent mana from the sky to feed the people, it would have been enough. You get the idea.


Though I never really bought into the whole religion thing, I couldn’t help but remember Dayenu as I walked out of Neill Blomkamp’s much anticipated District 9.

If it had just introduced some novel ideas into the already colossal “alien v.s human” sci-fi canon, it would have still been well worth the price of admission.

Had it not addressed important political issues at the forefront of our social consciousness– race relations, war profiteering, torture– it would have nonetheless been very good.

Even lacking Blomkamp’s incredible talent for incorporating CG footage and special effects with live action, District 9 would still be the best mainstream film released this summer.

If absent a touching and thought provoking story, and or a truly human tragic hero, the film would have easily become one of my favorites in any genre.


As with so many things, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the parts of District 9 add up to a simply phenomenal movie. Shortcomings in the storytelling are easily forgiven by the original and well thought-out plot, as rich in emotion and irony as any Greek epic (which, in a sense, the story is modeled after). The action and battle scenes rank right up there with those found in Black Hawk Down in terms of intensity, while still keeping enough detachment and fictiveness to allow for some truly awesome alien technology. So well done were the SFX that one quickly forgets the footage they are watching has been altered at all. Above all else, this is a smart film. So rarely these days are audiences allowed to think for themselves– to decide on their own who is right and who is wrong– without being beaten over the head with crudely constructed morality.

As icing on an already delicious cake, Blomkamp’s treatment of the South African setting is incredibly well done, and captures a great deal of nuanced behavior (especially in the flawlessly acted character of Wikus) that could so easily have been left out (but which leaves wistful ex-pats like myself cheering).

When I first saw Alive in Joburg, the digital short on which District 9 is based, I knew that whoever made it would go on to make some very special things, and Blomkamp does not disappoint. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next (HALO anyone?).

Kottke on Neurons

“Our brains have Oprah neurons, Aniston neurons, Eiffel Tower neurons, and Saddam neurons that fire when we see pictures or hear the names of these people and places.” - Jason Kottke

While I’m all for public interest in science, especially neuroscience, its a pity when undecided questions are reported as solved.

The issue in question is one of the neural coding of semantic information. Jason and the New Scientist article he links to describe what is known as the Grandmother Cell theory. In short, the theory argues that most distinct semantic concepts each have their own dedicated neuron which fires when we access that concept.

The problem with this theory, despite the fact that our brains are never actually this simple, is that there simply aren’t enough neurons in the right areas to encode all the possible content we might encounter. What would happen when we run out of neurons?

An alternative to the Grandmother Cell theory is the Distributed Representation theory (also called a neural network), which argues that semantic content is encoded by the specific structure of connections between neurons. This, to me, sounds much more reasonable. Realistically though (and as seemingly suggested in the article, though they don’t outright say it) is that our brains probably work in a way that combines the two theories.

The Science of Morality

I was lucky last night to be able to attend a fantastic lecture panel on the Science of Morality at the 92stY as part of the World Science Festival. Philosophers Daniel Dennett and Patricia Churchland, and neuroscientists Antonio Damasio and Marc Hauser discussed the philosophy, psychology, and biology of a fundamental aspect of human nature. Below are some of the more interesting ideas discussed.

Reduced D2 receptor densities lead to difficulty in learning from error and negative reinforcement:
Genetically Determined Differences in Learning from Errors (Science)
“Go” and “NoGo”: Learning and the Basal Ganglia (DANA)
This is of particular interest to me due to its implications for ADHD.

Breakdown of Theory of Mind in social, emotional, and moral decision-making:
Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind (Google Scholar, book)

PFC damage inhibits normal social/moral behavior:
On the neurology of morals (Nature Neuroscience)

Fundamental neurochemical differences effect social behavior:
The effects of oxytocin and vasopressin on partner preferences in male and female prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster) (PubMed)

Most of these articles are behind pay-walls, so let me know if you need access to one of them and I’ll use my school account.

Through the Wash

A few months ago, my buddy Chris and I were “shootin’ the shit,” as one is want to do, and he mentioned that he just found a jump-drive that he had accidentally sent through the washing machine. Unsurprisingly for those of us who know their way around electronic circuits, after drying the thing out, it worked. Despite this, we thought it might be fun to see what else could survive a trip to the laundromat, and decided to build Through the Wash.

With video reviews featuring the comedy talent of the Geek Comedy Tour 3000 team, we think Through the Wash has the potential to be a hit– but we need your help, so check it out and spread the word!

Mibbit is web-based IRC for your iPhone

One of the things I’ve been sorely missing since I switched from my old Sidekick II to my iPhone is the ability to hop on IRC and kill some time. On the Sidekick, I took advantage of the downloadable shell client and a remote server with a command-line IRC client installed, but on the iPhone, no such luck.

I was expecting to have to wait until June of this year when Apple starts allowing third-party applications on the device, but out the woodwork has come Mibbit, an iPhone compatible AJAX web application which provides the full IRC experience– arguably better even than that which I had with my Sidekick. Mibbit even manages to provide pre-join scrollback to help users catch up on conversation they may have missed– something I’d like to see in my desktop client as well.

While there are certainly some flaws with the Mibbit+iPhone union– its hard to type and read chat at the same time– it’s certainly a site I’ll be adding to my home screen.