Thursday 6 October 2011

Neutrinos caught speeding!

The big news in physics at the moment is that a beam of neutrinos from CERN has turned up at a particle detector 60ns sooner than should have been physically possible. Did they really travel faster than light? At first glance, most scientists would say that there's probably a flaw in the measurements somewhere, but the team who made the discovery had spent 2 years checking the results before they published them. However, if neutrinos really were travelling faster than light, we should have detected neutrinos from a supernova 5 years before the light from the explosion. (What if some did arrive that early and nobody noticed?) More exotic theories are going about. According to some versions of string theory, the universe we know is a four dimensional strcture called a brane (short for membrane) embedded in a higher dimensional bulk. If the brane is slightly curved, neutrinos could take a short cut across the bulk.

So, have we found an exception to relativity? Is this evidence of extra dimensions? Or will it all come down to experimental error? I know that the latter is most likely, but I want my spaceship!

Tuesday 6 September 2011

Quantum Thinking and Function Words

Two articles in New Scientist caught my eye this week - one about a quantum mechanics like system of logic and the other about function words. According to the first article, many of our thought processes don't follow the rules of classical logic, but a system of inference that can be described in terms of Hilbert Space, which is a vector space with an arbitrary number of dimensions. Quantum mechanics uses Hilbert spaces to describe the states of quantum systems, and the mathematics of Hilbert space allows quantum states to interact in counter-intuitive ways. The same logic apparently allows human minds to combine ideas in ways that don't necessarily follow the rules of classical logic, but do allow greater flexibility. To quote from the article -
If you want to research a topic such as the "story of rock" with geophysics and rock formation in mind, you don't want a search engine to give you millions of pages on rock music. One approach would be to include "-songs" in your search terms in order to remove any pages that mention "songs". This is called negation and is based on classical logic. While it would be an improvement, you would still find lots of pages about rock music that just don't happen to mention the word songs. Widdows has found that a negation based on quantum logic works much better. Interpreting "not" in the quantum sense means taking "songs" as an arrow in a multidimensional Hilbert space called semantic space, where words with the same meaning are grouped together. Negation means removing from the search pages that shares any component in common with this vector, which would include pages with words like music, guitar, Hendrix and so on. As a result, the search becomes much more specific to what the user wants.
Obviously, if you're interested in Artificial Intelligence, where a key aim is to enable computers to emulate the flexibility of human thought, this is a useful approach. The second article, by James W. Pennebacker, concerns his work on the importance of function words. These are things like pronouns, conjunctions and prepositions, the words that don't seem to mean very much, but act like glue holding the sentence together. Professor Pennebaker has discovered that there's a lot of psychological information hidden in these apparently insignificant words - for example, in a conversation between two people, the more socially dominant one will tend to use the word "I" less than the other one. Most natural language processing software treats words like this as stop words and ignores them, but for some applications (eg sentiment analysis, social network analytics) it could be just the data you need.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Doctor Who: The Almost People

The Almost People is a tale of humanity lost and found. As Jen, the Ganger we had most sympathy with last week is driven by her desire for revenge to become more and more monstrous, Cleeve, the human who was most monstrous last week, acknowledges her vulnerability and comes good. The other Gangers reluctantly agree to Jen's plan to destroy the humans, believing it to be their only chance of survival.

The Doctor trusts his Ganger immediately, but Amy finds she can't. She does, however, confide in him about the future Doctor's death, possibly hoping that it was the Ganger who died. She also tells the Doctor about Weird Eyepatch Woman, although the Doctor initally dismisses this as "just a Time Memory". Rory finds two Jens, and a fight breaks out between them, ending with one of them falling into a pool of acid and dissolving, revealing her to be a Ganger. When the surviving Jen shows Rory the pile of discarded Gangers, we are reminded that the Gangers do have a genuine grievance against the humans, but then we discover that the real Jen is dead. Her Ganger, having created another Ganger of herself for the purpose of destroying it to trick Rory into helping her, has crossed a line even by her own standards.

Rory and one of the Doctors have been captured by the Gangers, and base is heading for destruction, with the remaining Doctor and the surviving humans strugging to contain the acid, when Adam's son phones for his birthday. Adam's Ganger goes to get his original, only to find him dying. Being the Human who found it easiest to identify with his Ganger, Adam then hands his life over to his duplicate. The other Gangers no longer support Jen, and help the surviving humans to escape.

At the end, some of the survivors are humans and some are Gangers. We discover that the Doctors had switched boots earlier, so presumably the real Doctor knows about his assasination now. Although the Ganger Doctor and the Ganger Cleeve were dissolved stopping the now completely monstrous Jen, the possiblity that they could reconstitute themselves is left open. But ther's a bigger revalation left to come.

You remember there was a thowaway line last week about how the Flesh could even duplicate clothes? Well, I'd been wondering for a while why Amy, who loves dressing up, had been wearing the same outfit all season. It turned out that since Day of the Moon, the Amy we've been seeing has been a Ganger, and that the real Amy was being held prisoner somewhere. This explains why the Tardis couldn't decide whether she was pregnant or not - the Ganger wasn't, the real Amy was. Now, she's about to give birth, while held captive by the Weird Eyepatch Woman.

By the way, did anyone else think that the episode titles should have been the other way round?

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Doctor Who: The Rebel Flesh

The Rebel Flesh brought an unusual element of hard SF into Doctor Who. Programmable matter is an idea that nanotechnologists are actively working on. It's role in the story was to explore the familiar idea of artificial people - here, the "Gangers" (short for Doppelgangers were being used to undertake hazardous work (mining deadly acid) as a safety precuation for their human operators. The opening scene brought home how this could dehumanize the operators - when a Ganger falls into a vat of acid, his colleagues are more concerned about the loss of his protective suit than him - and at this point, we don't know that he's a Ganger.

The Doctor is clearly up to something - he's planning to drop Amy and Rory off for chips and deal with this one himself. It also becomes apparent later in the episode that he already knows something about The Flesh, and isn't telling anyone what. Having bluffed his way into the facility with the Psychic Paper (a device that's being used more sparingly of late), the Dcotor inspects The Flesh in its vat, and it inspects him. After the rather creepy sight of a Ganger being created, we get the solar storm that knocks everybody out, ruptures the acid pipes, and makes the Gangers independent of their originals. The Frankenstein reference is obvious, but it reminded me more closely of Short Circuit.

The Gangers now have all the memories of their human originals. As Rory gets to know Jen, we find that they are frightened and confused. So are the humans, who at first think of the free Gangers as nothing but a threat. The Doctor introduces the Gangers to their originals, and at first it seems that there's some sort of understanding developing between the Gangers and the humans. But as in The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood, somebody has to go and ruin everything - in this case it's Cleeve, the leader, who electrocutes one of the Gangers - I think. Since the Gangers look identical to the Humans at this point, it could easily have been a Ganger killing a Human, a Ganger killing a Ganger or a Human killing a Human. At this point, our sympathies lie very much with the Gangers, but as Ganger Jen, the one that we have most empathy with, encourages her fellows to rise up in revolt, the waters become considerably muddier. The humans try to barricade themselves into the safest part of the base, but Rory is left outside, and in with them is a Ganger... of The Doctor.

All the ingredients in this story are familiar - artificial humans, a base under siege, a conflict that The Doctor tries to prevent but can't, sympathetic monsters and unsympathetic humans, The Doctor being cut off from the Tardis, the duplicate of The Doctor. It's the way they've been mixed that comes off really well in this story.

One last detail... Amy saw the weird woman with the eyepatch again.

Monday 23 May 2011

Fortieth post Wordle

Wordle: Fantastical Devices 4

Well, we can see what I've been writing about recently, can't we?
Two interesting things to note - one is that The Doctor's Wife seems to dominate the Doctor Who related writing - I ended up writing quite a big post about that one. However, I'm glad to see that Doctor Who isn't sqeezing everything else out.

Guess what my next post's going to be about?

Friday 20 May 2011

Robots invent a language

IEEE Spectrum describes an interesting experiment in artificial intelligence and linguistics. Two robots, equipped with microphones and loudspeakers to talk to each other, managed to create a set of words useful for navigating their environment.

I think it would be interesting to extend this experiment to see if it could give insight into how language evolves. Starting with a larger population of robots, you could give them time to make up a language, and then start deleting the memories of individual robots at intervals. In real life, languages have to be continually relearned by sucessive generations of speakers, and this is probably part of the reason why the undergo changes. It would be possible to vary the size of the population and the rate of deletions to see what influence these might have, and also to add varying amounts of background noise.

Mind you, to give a real insight into the development of human language, you might want to give the robots more complex tasks to do than simply finding their way around, so that they would have to invent a grammar to express their meaning. Then you would be seeing how language might develop in a mind fundamentally unlike a humans. There's been considerable debate amongst linguists about how many of the constraints on human languages are hard-wired into the human brain, and how many are simply a result of circumstance, and what can evolve from what already exists.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Doctor Who: The Doctor's Wife

The titleThe Doctor's Wife turned out to be a metaphor, but it was an apt one. You can well imagine hardcore fans debating who might be the greatest love of The Doctor's life. Was it Susan's grandmother? Was it Sarah Jane Smith? (RIP Lis Sladen) Was it Romana? Was it Rose Mary Sue Tyler? Was it Madame de Pompadour? Is it River Song?

No, it's the Tardis. Obvious when you think about it.

The episode has a sinister opening, with Uncle, Auntie and Nephew (an Ood) preparing Idris to have her soul sucked out and replaced with another one. Cut to The Doctor, Amy and Rory in the Tardis, bantering about past adventures. There's a knock on the door. They're in space. The Doctor opens the door and finds a message capsule from another Time Lord, "The Corsair". The message leads them to a junkyard world in a pocket universe, where the Matrix is sucked out of the Tardis.

It turns out to be a trap of course - while The Doctor searches for other survivors of the Time War, he sends Amy and Rory back to the Tardis and locks them in. He then discovers that House, the planet they are on, is a sentient planet that eats Tardises, and that The Corsair has been killed and his body parts used in House's patchwork servants. Meanwhile, House having heard from The Doctor that his Tardis is the last one left, has decided to hijack it and head for our universe in search of more food. But The Doctor has an ally - Idris, who has become a personification of the Tardis.

Neil Gaiman makes good use of Doctor Who's past in this story, pulling off the trick of using references to previous adventures in such a way that they add something if you know the reference, but don't take anything away if you don't. The Tardis comes across as pleasingly barmy, and the idea that she wanted to see the universe, so she stole a Time Lord and ran away is a neat symmetry. Best quote of the episode has to be the following exchange-

I just want to say, you know, you have never been very reliable.
And you have?
You didn't always take me where I wanted to go.
No, but I always took you where you needed to go.
You did!

Of course, we always knew that was how it worked, but now it's been said on screen.

But despite focussing on The Doctor's relationship with his Tardis, the episode didn't neglect Amy and Rory, and showed some real insights into their relationship too. Amy, who's normally full of mad bravado, was allowed to let the mask slip and be vulnerable. The quote "Hold my hand, Rory," when the Tardis took off under House's control was touching, and she was bought face to face with her greatest possible fear - losing Rory not only physically, but emotionally too. Then the real Rory turn up, and show us what she needs him to be - the reliable one, the one sane person in a mad universe. Rory had had a wonderful Genre Savvy moment earlier, when House asked, "Why shouldn't I just kill you now?" and he replied, "Because it wouldn't be any fun." Interesting that the Tardis thought that he was "the pretty one".

This week's cryptic bit - The river is the only water in your forest. River Song, perhaps? she did appear in Forest of the Dead, and also appeared in a forest in Flesh and Stone.

Note to Steven Moffat- ask Neil Gaiman back.

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Protecting my birdbox

A few years ago, I put up a birdbox in my garden. This year, for the first time, a pair of bluetits has moved in and are bringing up chicks there. This evening, after I got home from work, I noticed a cat climbing onto the birdbox - either trying to get at the chicks inside or catch the parents. After chasing the cat off, I decided to set up a more permanent deterrent.

Have you ever wondered why chillis contain capsaicin, the substance that creates the burning sensation when you eat them? In the wild, their seeds are spread by birds pecking at the fruit. If mammals ate them, they'd grind up the seeds with their teeth. The capsaicin acts as a deterrent to mammals, which, with the exception of one mad species of ape, finds the burning sensation produced extremely unpleasant. Birds, however, aren't sensitive to it.

So, I've put some chilli on top of my birdbox. Hopefully the next time the cat tries to get up there will be the last. As a bonus, while I was doing it I managed to look into the box and get a glimpse of the chicks

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Doctor Who: The Curse of the Black Spot

Yo ho ho! Or does nobody actually say that?

Pirates, becalmed on the high seas, in fear of an unearthly power. It's a good setup, and one that this week's Doctor Who made good use of. The Doctor had to walk the plank (another thing that nobody's sure real pirates actually did), and did his usual trick of talking nonsense to stall for time while trying to think up a way out, giving Amy the opportunity not only to rescue him, but to dress for the part as well. The lines
What do you think you're doing?

Saving your life!
recurred, and we even had a bit of fun with the Gilbert and Sullivan idea of silly, non-threatening pirates, with the pirates being afraid of even the slightest scratch.

Most of the episode focussed on Captain Avery, and so Amy and Rory had a bit less to do than usual after Amy's swashbuckling. Rory, who'd been a bit left out of the action for most of the episode, did get a star turn at the end when, told that he was drowning, told Amy how to save his life. There was a wonderful running joke thoughout the episode of The Doctor realising every five minutes that he'd been wrong about everything so far.

The were two interesing bits of Moffatian weirdness in this episode. First off, who was the woman in the eyepatch, who appeared to Amy as if on a videoscreen and said "You're doing well"? Secondly, what's going on with Amy's pregnancy? Last week, I thought I knew what had happened, but now even the Tardis can't work out what's going on. It reminds me of the bit in The Beast Below where a computer couldn't work out her marital status. All will be revealed, eventually, but it's likely to get a lot stranger first!

Friday 6 May 2011

Doctor Who: Day of the Moon

A bit later than I'd hoped (it's been a busy week) here are my thoughts about last Saturday's Doctor Who.

We found out the answers to some of the questions asked last week, but by no means all. We know who the Silence are and what they want, but the question of whether Amy can save the Doctor is another matter. It seems that Amy and Rory had left the Tardis because Amy was pregnant, but she hadn't told Rory because she was worried about what effect being conceived in the Tardis would have on the baby. However, it seems that at some point in the three months between the two episodes she was captured by The Silence and taken back in time a few years. While captive, she gave birth and her daughter was brought up in the creepy orphanage. I don't think she was in the astronaut suit when it assasinated The Doctor, though. The Doctor's plan to defeat the Silence, while a classic Hoist By Their Own Petard (The Avengers used to be particularly fond of that tactic) was one of the most chillingly ruthless things I've seen him do. The assasination at the beginning of The Impossible Astronaut was probably The Silence's revenge. Still don't know why they were trying to blow up the Universe last season though.

My favourite bit, however, was this conversation between The Doctor and Rory.
This is their empire. It would be like kicking the Romans out of Rome.

Rome fell.

I know. I was there.

So was I.

The Doctor's already got everything in place for his plan at this point, but he's turning to Rory for reassurance before going through with it. I often think that Rory is the bravest of the current Tardis crew - The Doctor's used to a life of adventure, and Amy enjoys the danger - in Flesh and Stone it appears that she enjoys it a little too much.

There's a big surprise at the end - it turns out that Amy was right that being conceived in the Tardis might have affected her baby. It's apparently turned her into a Time Lord.

Thursday 28 April 2011

Delicious has a new owner

As you can see, I'm a user of the social bookmarking site Delicious, or to use its original name, It was previously owned by Yahoo!, which announced last December that they didn't want it anymore. This led to panic amongst Delicious users, as a rumour went round that the site was going to close. Yahoo! quickly issued a statement that they weren't closing it, they were selling it, and now the new owners have been announced - AVOS, a company founded by the users of YouTube. Hopefully they might develop the site a bit more - Delicious has had the feel of a resource with untapped potential for a while.

And while we're at it, can we have the cool URL back please?

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Doctor Who: The Impossible Astronaut

Doctor Who has started again! This gives me a way to get back into the habit of writing regularly, after a couple of off weeks. Before I start, though, here's a warning from River Song.


Saturday's episode lulled into a false sense of security with The Doctor messing about in history, and then brought us to the picnic, where Amy caught her first glimpse of The Silence, and a the Astronaut appeared out of a lake and assasinated The Doctor. As Rory decided to give The Doctor a Viking Funeral in a burning boat, I'm wondering if this was "The Picnic at Asgard" that River referred to in Silence In The Library. After meeting a younger version of the Doctor, we headed to the White House in 1969, where we met Richard Nixon. Whereas historical characters have been major parts in previous stories, here Richard Nixon was more of a supporting character. The episode was really pushing Steven Moffat's trademark mixture of scares and weirdness to the limit. There are a load of unanswered questions, including
  • Who are the Silence? It's implied that they were the behind the scenes villains of last season, and their ship is the same as the one seen in The Lodger, but we really don't know anything more of them than that.
  • What do they want?
  • Can Amy save the Doctor, and if so, how?

But the one that's intriguing me most is Why were Amy and Rory at home at the beginning of the episode? Last time we saw them, they were happily travelling with The Doctor and showed no sign of wanting to go home. River said that it would be dangerous for The Doctor to interfere with his own timeline, but maybe everybody's timelines have already been interfered with, and need to be put right.

Also, could this be when The Doctor tells River his True Name? When she revealed that she knew it in Silence In The Library, The Doctor said there was only one reason why he'd tell it to anybody. Could the reason be because he was going to die?

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Not as easy as it sounds

A while ago, I came up with the idea of a spoken language recogniser. The idea was that it would use a stripped down speech recognition engine to identify the phonemes in an utterance, and then feed these into an AI system which could identify which of a given set of languages a particular sequence was most likely to come from. You may have noticed that I've been a bit quiet about this recently. I've run into a few snags.

The first is that a speech recogniser needs to be trained to recognise all the different sounds it has to identify. I can't just use an off-the-shelf model for this, as there aren't any that are designed for multi-language use. As far as I can tell, nobody else has needed a multi-language speech recognition app before. So, I'll have to build my own model. Fortunately this site has recordings of many sounds from many different languages, and so gives me a good starting point for building a phonetic model.

The second problem is with transcribing all these sounds. The speech recognition engine I'm likely to use, CMU Sphinx, seems to want phonetic transcriptions to be case insensitive and alphanumeric. I'd prefer to use an X-SAMPA derivative called CXS, but the constraints the speech recogniser places on me won't allow that. Fortunately, sounds within a transcription can be separated by spaces, allowing for multicharacter notation, but with the sheer number of sounds the system has to recognise, I'll probably end up with something like htwvitbveuotkvwvahfi, a logical but unusable system I created as a parody of spelling reform proposals.

Tuesday 29 March 2011

Apropriate Technology

I used to have a wireless doorbell. The button and the sounder were'nt physically connected. If it stopped working, you had to try to work out whether the battery had run out in the button or the sounder. Recently, it stopped working. I tried to change the battery in the button. It was an unusually small type of battery, and fiddly to change. Afterwards, I found it impossible to put the faceplate back on the button - eventually, one of the little plastic lugs that was supposed to hold it together snapped. So I got this instead.

Why have something that needs batteries and can go wrong, when you can have something that doesn't need batteries and can't go wrong?

Monday 28 March 2011

Thirtieth Post Wordle

Wordle: Fantastical Devices 3

Yes, it's the thirtieth post, so that means it's Wordle time. It's interesting to see how themes have developed over the last 30 posts or so - at the moment, language and conlang related stuff is dominating, 10 posts ago it was AI related stuff, and earlier on my ideas for an incorporating Romlang were most significant.

Thursday 24 March 2011

versamus ; we roll: Conlanging for Fiction – Part 2 – In Creative Writing

I found an interesting post in Ben Scerri's blog
versamus ; we roll: Conlanging for Fiction – Part 2 – In Creative Writing.

One of my conlangs, Khangaþyagon is part of the background of a fantasy book I've been writing on and off (more off than on) for a few years. I wanted the magic in the book to be believable, so I thought that the spells should be in an ancient language, now known only to wizards. I wanted the incantations to be meaningful, on the assumption that readers, when coming across a spell, would be able to spot gibberish, and that that would reduce their suspension of disbelief. There's one famous fantasy series that I lost interest in partly because I couldn't suspend belief in its magic system - which was one of the things that provoked me to think "I can do better than this". I'm planning to have an appendix at the back of the book translating the spells. One thing I'd note is that it's OK to have a glossary at the back of the book, but it the reader has to consult it three times by the end of the first page, you're (a) getting a bit carried away, and (b) Frank Herbert.

The other thing I've done is that there's no "Common Tongue" in my fictional world. Wizards can learn languages supernaturally fast, but they still have to learn. My protagonist isn't a wizard (yet), and for much of the book is dependent on somebody else to translate for him. This puts him in a vulnerable position. At one point, I've also got a scene where one character tries to teach him her language. In another point, an old woman who learnt his language in her childhood mentions that she can never remember when to use a certain prefix in it, and he gets hopelessly tangled up trying to explain it. I'm trying to give an idea of the linguistic richness of the world, without the reader getting bogged down in fine details.

I'll be following versamus.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

Musical moods

Some colleagues of mine are running an experiment to find out what you can deduce about a television programme from its signature tune. The experiment is described in more detail in the BBC R&D Blog.

I had a go myself earlier - you have to listen to a number of theme tunes and then answer questions about each one. The questions change from tune to tune - quite a clever piece of experimental design, in that it prevents you from getting into a rut where you're calculating your answers before the music's finished. Hopefully, it will enable my colleagues to train an AI to recognise genre and mood from theme music.

PS - sorry for the lack of posts recently.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

An Experiment in English Phonology

We normally think of English as having voiceless stops, /p t k/ and voiced stops, /b d g/. Voiceless stops have an aspirated allophone [p_h t_h k_h] that appears in certain places, particularly when the stop appears at the beginning of a syllable. Aspiration, in this model of English pronunciation, is a redundant secondary feature of voiceless stops.

However, on the Conlang Mailing List, And Rosta proposed an alternative model. His idea is that English actually has aspirated stops /p_h t_h k_h/ and unaspirated stops /b d g/. Voicing would be a redundant secondary feature of unaspirated stops - the [t] in "stop" would actually be a /d/ that's lost its voice. And put forward a number of interesting theoretical arguments for this, but I thought that it needed to be tested experimentally.

If the standard interpretation of English phonology is correct, English speakers should find voiced and voiceless stops easier to tell apart than aspirated and unaspirated stops. In And's interpretation, they should find aspirated and unaspirated stops easier to tell apart than voiced and voiceless.

Bengali distinguishes between plain (voiceless, unaspirated), apsirated, voiced and voiced aspirated (breathy voiced or murmured) stops. I asked a Bengali speaker to record a sample of 20 words which you can listen to here and transcribe them in CXS. I then asked three volunteers from the Conlang Mailing list, all of whom were monoglot English speakers, to listen to the recording, and trascribe their first impression of what they heard. Here are the results.

OriginalListener 1Listener 2Listener 3

For each stop and affricate in the sample, I then recorded which of the four categories it fell into, and how the volunteers identified it. The results are as follows.
Heard as
ActualPlainAspiratedVoicedVoiced aspiratedOther
Voiced aspirated32001

From this we can see that English speakers correctly identify plain stops as voiceless 70% of the time. They almost always identify voiceless stops as plain, whether or not they are aspirated. Aspirated voiceless stops are always identified as voiceless. Voiced stops are almost always correctly identified, and voiced aspirated stops, which are alien to English, are never correctly identified.

These results are more consistent with voicing being the primary feature than aspiration. Sorry, And.

Monday 21 February 2011

A Fantastical Device for Identifying languages

If I were to say to you,
hajimemashite. buriikurii piitaa desu. douzo yoroshiku
you probably wouldn't understand what I meant. However, you would know that I wasn't speaking English (it's Japanese, as a matter of fact). Were I to say, however
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimbal in the wabe.
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

you would be able to recognise what I said as English, even though it doesn't make sense. Each language has its own phonotactics, the rules determining how sounds can be combined to make words. Therefore, you can identify a language by its sound even if you can't understand it.

I've seen a lot of language identification software on the web, but it all works from written text. We conlangers, or course, like to game the system by putting in our conlangs and seeing what happens. I thought it would be fun to try building a system that could identify languages from speech. So, I've started off a project on Google code to try my ideas out. The idea is to use a stripped-down speech recognition engine to extract a stream of phonemes from audio, and then feed those phonemes into an AI system that has been trained to recognise the phonotactics of various languages.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

My "Native American" name

Last year, I did a project extracting semantic data from the BBC's archive catalogue. I presented the results to a senior colleague, who now wants me to present it to some academics who are involved in a collaborative project. The thing that seems to have stuck in his mind about my presentation is that I demonstrated my results with an old wildlife programme about a bird called a Red Tailed Hawk. He therefore described me in an email as
The bloke who can find a nesting Redtail Hawk in 1,000,000 hours of tape and film
. As a result, I was put on the agenda as "Hawkfinder".

I therefore seem to have acquired a Native American name. I'd be interested to hear how it would come out in various conlangs - particularly Native American inspired ones like Jeff Burke's Central Mountain Languages - so leave me a comment with your translation. In Khangaþyagon it would be


ketarg- slat- ont- rik
hawk find PrP man

Also, what would your "Native American name" be, and why?

Thursday 10 February 2011

Oh, It Makes Me Wonder

Gradus ad Parnassum, meaning Steps to Mount Parnassus (in Greek mythology, the home of the Muses), is a famous musical composition textbook from the 18th Century. It taught, in a series of step-by-step lessons, the rules of the musical technique known as counterpoint, where several different melodies are composed to be performed in harmony with each other. Of course, once the student had mastered the rules (it was very technical), they would hopefully be able to work out for themselves where they could get away with breaking them for artistic effect.

Led Zeppelin's most famous song is called Stairway to Heaven. You know the one - starts of gently with 12-string guitars, recorders, and references to Tolkien, and gradually becomes more Hard Rock as it progresses (You can listen to it in Pete's Progcast if you wait long enough for it to come round). The resemblence between the title and that of the Baroque music textbook may seem like a complete coincidence. However, there's a bit near the end that goes
And as we wind on down the road,
Our shadows taller than our souls,
There stands the lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard
The dream will come to you at last
Where all are one, and one is all,
To be a rock, and not to roll!

If you're singing Stairway to Heaven on a karaoke night, about halfway though this bit you realise that you're really going to need a drink after this. Each line of the passage goes to just about the same tune, but is pitched a little bit higher than the one before. In musical terms, that's called a canon. It's a technique that was frequently in the type of music that Gradus ad Parnassum teaches,

Tuesday 8 February 2011

What are the odds of a planet having a large moon?

As Dr. Maggie Alderin-Pocock pointed out in Do We Really Need The Moon?, our Moon is unusually large in comparison to its parent planet, and the large tidal forces it generates are thought to have been very important to the origin of life on Earth. She therefore suggested that when looking for life on other planets, we should concentrate out efforts on other planets that have large moons.

Our Moon, according to the best theories we have, was formed when another planet, the size of Mars, crashed into the early Earth. This, at first, sounds like a spectacularly unlikely event. It may sound quite discouraging if you were hoping to get in touch with aliens. However, models of the early solar system show that it was quite a violent, chaotic place, and space rocks crashing into each other is pretty much how the inner planets were formed. So, is there any way we can calculate the probability of a planet having a large moon like ours?

The best way is to make an empirical estimate, and it turns out to be a lot easier to do than you might have expected, and to have quite encouraging results. There are four rocky planets in the inner solar system. One has a large moon. So the odds of a rocky planet having a large moon, based on the available evidence, is 1/4. (± √3/8)

Wednesday 2 February 2011

Do We Really Need The Moon?

I used to be an astronomer (Ph.D from Leicester, studying Active Galactic Nuclei) so I quite enjoyed Do We Really Need The Moon? on BBC 2 last night. The programme explored the effects the Moon has on the Earth, and how those effects have been helpful to the development of life.

I also found the presenter really interesting. If you look at my profile photo, you'll see that I belong to the same demographic group as most people with physical sciences Ph.Ds. Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock is in the intersection of two groups who are severly underrepresented in the physical sciences. On top of which, she mentioned that she is dyslexic, which is a condition that can limit a person's educational opportunities. Hopefully, people who had thought that they weren't the sort of people who could be a scientist will have seen the programme and realised that maybe they could.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

AI is No Longer a Dirty Word

I recently did a search for Artificial Intelligence London, and then looked at the results on a map. By doing so, I discovered a company called Cognitive Match. They're a start-up whose product aims to customise a client's website to match a user's needs on the fly. What particularly caught my attention was the following quote
Our software combines mathematics with psychology and artificial intelligence to give your customers what they want.
It's very unusual to see anyone outside the games industry use the term Artificial Intelligence for something they're actually selling. The reasons for this are largely historical. A few years ago, a lot of people made rather overhyped claims for what AI would be able to do, which didn't match up with what it could actually do at the time. This created the impression that anything that was described as Artificial Intelligence belonged in the lab, and wasn't likely to turn into a usable product in the forseeable future.

There's a gradual change in the perception of AI going on. This is partly because researchers have been taking a more pragmatic approach to AI, and partly because the internet is making large datasets more readily available. Good data is the limiting factor in most AI applications, so, the more data is available, the better AI works.

Friday 14 January 2011

Coming Soon on Doctor Who

Doctor Who 2011 Trailer

This was shown after the Doctor Who Christmas special. It promises a lot of things to look forward to, including -
  • Georgians
  • Nazis (bet they'd get on with the Daleks)
  • The Doctor says he's "been running, faster than I've ever run. Now it's time for me to stop." ...
  • then makes outrageous demands of a lot of armed men.
  • Whenever the Doctor says his hat is cool, River Song shoots it.
  • "We've been recruited." "Recruited by who?"
  • The interior of a ship like the one from The Lodger. Bet that's something to do with The Silence.
  • Sinister figure in a spacesuit. Are the Vashta Nerada back?
  • River Song (apparently) nude. That'll bump up my search ratings... (as the actress said to the bishop).
  • The Ood
  • Sinister dolls
  • That writing on Amy's face reminds me of something.
  • "My life in your hands, Amelia Pond."
  • "One thing I can tell you... Monsters are real" Is that a Grey that's got Rory cornered?

Looking forward to it!

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Creating a langauge with clustering algorithms

I recently posted this at the Conlang Mailing List, but I thought it was worth putting up here.

Define a phonology for a language. Make sure you know what all its
distinctive features are.

Generate a very large set of wordforms for the language using an
automatic vocabulary generator.

Calculate the difference between each pair of wordforms in the
vocabulary, using a modified version of the Levenshtein Distance, where
the cost of an insertion or deletion is the total number of distinctive
features in the language's phonology, and the cost of a substitution is
the number of features that differ between the substituted phonemes.

Cluster the wordforms so that each wordform belongs to the same cluster
as its nearest neighbour.

Explore the clusters, assigning related meanings to related wordforms.
Make notes of how changes of form relate to changes of meaning, so that
they can be reapplied later - if the software is clever enough, once
you've annotated a process that applies to two wordforms, it can search
the dataset for other pairs of wordforms where the same process may be

This could be a good way of generating non-concatenative morphologies,
and simulating the effects of analogy on language development.

What do people think? Anyone like to have a go at implementing it?