25 April 2008

Computer program defeats Go master

During the Go Tournament in Paris, staged between 22 and 24 March 2008 by the French Go Federation (FFG), the MoGo artificial intelligence engine developed by INRIA running on a Bull NovaScale supercomputer, won a 9x9 game of Go against professional 5th DAN Catalin Taranu. This was the first ever officially sanctioned 'non blitz' victory of a 'machine' over a Go Master.

(Press release)

(Taranu came back to win the match 2-1.) For a long time it was thought that computers would never be able to defeat skilled humans at Go because the staggering number of possible Go positions (much more than are possible in chess) demands human pattern-matching skills.

MoGo, like many top Go programs today, makes use of Monte Carlo (randomized) methods in order to tackle the inherent complexity of the problem.

22 April 2008

These are a few of my favorite things

Some things I've been enjoying lately:

  • Super Mario Galaxy. Unlike Zelda: Twilight Princess, it's easy to play even if you have under half an hour. The controls feel great and the music is truly memorable. Gameplay is so satisfying that I frequently go back and replay levels for fun.
  • Queen and The Killers
  • South Park, which is at once brilliant, hilarious, and incisive.
  • Openbox, which I've been using as my window manager for a few weeks now.

And some things I'm looking forward to:

11 April 2008

Linguistic curiosities

For some reason, I'm captivated by foreign accents, and I love reading transcriptions of foreign and regional accents. So I had a lot of fun reading ibiblio's 404 page. Excerpts:

American South
Ah cain't find th' page yer lookin' fer.
No chance luv, carrnt find it neever.
English (Bristolian Accent)
I casn't find what thee bist lookin' fer, me babber.
English (East African- Kikuyu)
Da paej yu ah lookin fo eiz not avaerabouh.
English (Lancastrian dialect)
Weers yon page geet to? T'int 'ere!
English (Yorkshire dialect)
Sithi, it's noreer, issit?

In The Onion, Alan Greenspan is a rock star

1999: Greenspan, Entourage Demolish Hotel Room, Greenspan To Play 15 Unannounced Small-Club Shows

2000: World Gets First-Ever Look Inside Greenspan Fantasy Ranch

2001: Screaming Japanese Schoolgirls Overturn Greenspan's Bus, Fifth-Grader Writes 'Mrs. Alan Greenspan' All Over Her Notebook

2004: Investors Stake Out Greenspan's House For Signs Of Rate Increase

2007: Greenspan Comes Out Of Retirement For One More Interest Rate Hike

09 April 2008

AP Computer Science AB on the chopping block

The Washington Post reports that the AP Computer Science AB exam, among others, will be discontinued after 2009:

The courses being cut — Italian, Latin literature, French literature and computer science AB — are among the least popular in the AP portfolio. Italian, introduced three years ago, has attracted 1,642 students and 305 teachers nationwide, one-fifth the number who expressed interest before it was created, AP officials said. Courses in French and Latin literature serve 2,068 and 3,771 students, respectively. The most popular AP subjects, including U.S. history and English literature, reach hundreds of thousands of students each year.

The Post didn't report numbers for APCS, but if something like 4000 students take it, then about one in 200 of those students goes to SHS. Incroyable.

Times are changing

Digital television:

On February 17, 2009 all full-power broadcast television stations in the United States will stop broadcasting on analog airwaves and begin broadcasting only in digital.

Our kids may not know what white noise looks like on TV.

DHS has extraordinary powers, says Congress

In 2005, Congress granted to the DHS the power to void any federal law that might interfere with building a border fence. And then...

Last week, Mr. Chertoff issued waivers suspending more than 30 laws he said could interfere with "the expeditious construction of barriers" in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. The list included laws protecting the environment, endangered species, migratory birds, the bald eagle, antiquities, farms, deserts, forests, Native American graves and religious freedom.

This reads like an article out of The Onion.

Congress also (probably unconstitutionally) exempts any such decisions from review by the courts.

New York Times, "Power to Build Border Fence Is Above U.S. Law"

06 April 2008

The Cicadas are Coming!

The group of Magicicada known as Brood XIV is coming out in Massachusetts and other parts of the Northeast this year in April or May. According to Wikipedia, they will be seen in parts of Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, New York, and New Jersey.

The last time I remember cicadas being in the news was the emergence of Brood X in 2004.

Magicicada come in varieties that come out (to mate) once only every 13 or 17 years. They are divided into 30 broods based on what year they come out. Broods I-XVII are 17-year cicadas and XVIII-XXX are 13-year cicadas.

Scientists theorize that having a life cycle that is a large prime number of years long helps the cicadas to escape predators or parasites. Predators that come out every year would alternately have to lie low for 16 years and be completely overwhelmed by cicadas on the 17th. And predators with any period of between 2 and 16 years would have to wait 17 cycles (34 to 272 years), because 17 is relatively prime to all numbers between 2 and 16. Either way, not a great niche to be in if you're a predator. (The same numerical reason prevents 13- and 17-year cicadas from interbreeding too much and creating intermediate forms.)

The Physics of Pinewood Derby Cars

As a Cub Scout I made Pinewood Derby cars, but unlike Clifford Lazar I didn't approach the Pinewood Derby from an engineer's perspective.

Hypothesis: for Pinewood Derby cars, air drag is irrelevant; most slowdown is due to rolling resistance and the wheels bumping up against the track as the car wobbles.

Strategy: cut grooves into the axles to reduce the axle-wheel contact area, and grease the axles up well. To reduce wobbling, increase the angular momentum (around a vertical axis) by placing weights at the very front and very back of the car.

Validation: Cliff's car placed second one year and an improved design placed first, showing up a bunch of cars that looked like drag racers and that had been tested in wind tunnels.

Moral: engineers are great.