Archive for February, 2007

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

Via Prospero’s Books, I found this article about robots being used to simulate evolution. I’ve read about similar projects simulating evolution through competing artificial intelligence programs, using the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” scenario as the competitive task. The Prisoner’s Dilemma, for those who are unfamiliar, breaks down as some variation of this:

You and a partner are both correctly arrested for two crimes, one major and one minor, and are put in separate rooms. Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy comes to visit you and offers you a deal: testify against your partner for the major crime, your partner will get twenty years, and you’ll walk for both crimes. However, his lovely assistant is right now offering the same deal to your partner. If you both confess, you’ll both get five years. If your partner confesses and you don’t, you’ll get the twenty, and he’ll walk. If neither of you confess, McCoy can’t make his case for the major crime, but he’ll make sure you both do two years for the minor one. What’s the right play?

Well, logically speaking, regardless of what your partner ends up doing, you’re better off confessing. But if you both confess, you both end up worse off than if you had both kept your mouths shut. If you had had the chance to communicate with each other, you might have chosen differently. The fact that you don’t know what your idiot partner is going to do while gazing into the eyes of the lovely ADA means that you can’t afford to take any chances, and neither can he. You both end up doing the nickel, even though neither of you had to.

In this example, you only get to play the game once. If you play some version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma with the same person repeatedly, your choices can affect future outcomes. In a sense, the choices you make are a form of communication. Only the very last time you play do you revert back to the original cutthroat scenario. (And since everybody knows this will be the case, the next-to-last iteration can also be cutthroat. How far back does this reasoning work?) There is actually a twenty-year-old Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma competition for artificial intellegence programs and the winning strategy has long been the simple Tit-for-Tat. But it seems there’s now a new champion, though it seems to me to be a bit of a cheat. Read the article and let me know what you think.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is an illustration of one of the central concepts of a branch of mathematics called “game theory.” Game theory allows us to make mathematical computations in decision making, even when all of the factors are not known. Think of two generals, one trying to choose a target to attack, the other deciding how to deploy defensive forces. Each knows the other is intelligent and out there making his decision. That’s game theory. If you were to meet someone anywhere in the world outside of the United States, but you couldn’t plan with that person ahead of time, where would you go? Would it surprise you to learn that almost everyone makes the same choice? (Post your answer in the comments section, if you like.) That’s game theory too.

With a branch of mathematics that can take unknown variables into account, a computer’s functionality can be increased significantly. Obviously computers that are powerful enough can play chess, but game theory allows them to play poker as well. There’s already a Texas Hold ‘Em Tournament for Artificial Intelligence programs. Imagine putting all of these programs into a giant simulated Texas Hold ‘Em Tournament where the losing programs died out and the winning programs created offspring with the possibility of mutation. We might evolve the ultimate strategy. And when we do, the first round of drinks are on me!

But as computers get more powerful, imagine other simulations we may be able to run, and what understandings we might be able to gain from these experiments. Evolution has proved itself to be a mighty force in the past. Once all of the data from Web 2.0 is compiled, maybe it will be allowed to evolve into Web 3.0. It’s not about computers becoming super-sentient and ruling over humans. It’s about humans developing and using new tools that can increase our capacity for growth. And if evolution has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that.

The Headline Game – 2/28/07

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

Real life or parody? Sometimes, I can’t tell the difference anymore. That’s when it’s time for the Headline Game.

Below are two headlines from and two headlines from The Onion. Can you spot which are the real headlines and which are the fakes?

1. Bill Clinton waiting until after primaries to endorse candidate
2. Colorado governor vows to “arm-wrestle” for jobs
3. Oscars reveal widening gap between best, worst dressed
4. Study: Vanity on the rise among college students

Note: Capitalization on the Onion headlines changed to match the style of CNN.

Answers: Story 1, Story 2, Story 3, Story 4

How did you do?

Conundrum: Venn-Hur

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

In a Venn Diagram puzzle, there are three overlapping circles, marked A, B, and C. Each circle has a different rule about who or what can go inside. The challenge is to guess the rule for each circle. You can find a more detailed explanation of Venn Diagram puzzles, along with an example, here.

This week, in honor of the Oscars, Conundrum goes to the movies! All eight titles below refer to motion pictures.

Have you figured out one of the rules? Two? All three? Feel free to post whatever you’ve got in the comments below. Just tell us which circle you’re solving, and what the rule is.


UPDATE: Circles A and B solved by Irene. Circle C solved by DeLisa. See comments for answers.

Question of the Week

Monday, February 26th, 2007

Last week, I posted a response to a blogger named Cesario who listed her ten unpopular opinions about Shakespeare. I registered my opinions for nine of them, but had only a non-committal response for her suggestion that Shakespeare was “probably Catholic” by saying there’s no way to know for sure. Well, of course there’s no way to know for sure. That’s why she called it an opinion, Shakespeare Teacher.

First, let me provide some quick background. In the early 16th century, England, like most of Europe, was a Catholic nation. During the Protestant Reformation, Henry VIII had a break with the Pope, partially over the question of whether he could divorce Catherine of Arragon (hint), and created instead the Anglican Church. After his death, his young son Edward VI and his advisors moved the country more solidly Protestant. After his death, came Queen Mary I.

Mary was of Spanish descent, and Spain was still solidly a Catholic country. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Arragon, and was married to the King of Spain (hint). She converted the country back to being Catholic, polarizing the country even further. Elizabeth inherited this strife and brought back the Anglican Church, but tried to implement the via media, or “middle way,” a compromise that made nobody happy. But this was the world that Shakespeare was born into, so if his family was Catholic, they would have had good reason to hide it. But lack of evidence alone isn’t proof either way.

I just did a Google search for “Was Shakespeare Catholic?” and the more interesting results can be found here and here. Both articles conclude that there’s no way to know for sure. So let me ask your opinion.

In your opinion, was Shakespeare Catholic?

Slings & Arrows 3.2: Vex Not His Ghost

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

The second episode of Season Three of Slings & Arrows airs on Sundance tonight at 8pm. It will also be repeated throughout the week, in case you have something else you want to watch tonight.

Use the comments section of this post to discuss the episode. Any comments I may have will also be posted in the comments section. Word from Canada is that the major themes for the season will be revealed in this episode.

You can continue to discuss last week’s episode here. Discuss Season 1 here and Season 2 here. Future episodes for Season 3 will be posted as they air on Sundance.

WARNING: Comments may contain further discussion of the show, including potential spoilers. Click through only after viewing the episode. Commenters may discuss this episode as freely as they like, though Canadian readers are asked not to post spoilers for any later episodes.

By the way, did you know that William Hutt (Charles) has been performing at the Stratford Festival in Canada since its very first season in 1953? That’s hot.

Rumors, Gossip, and Sarcasm about 2008

Sunday, February 25th, 2007

It’s still too early for any kind of meaningful speculation about 2008, so I will only offer rumors, gossip, and sarcasm.

There’s a rumor going around that if Al Gore wins the Oscar tonight, he’s going to announce his candidacy for President. I’d love to see Al Gore run, but he really doesn’t seem interested. I do think he’s going to win the Oscar though.

On the Republican side, Giuliani’s burning up the polls, and I think he’d mop up in the general election. I can’t see myself voting for him in the general, though we could do a lot worse. But once the primaries get going and conservative voters learn who he is and what he stands for, he’s not going to have, for lack of a better word, a prayer of winning the nomination.

To clarify earlier comments, I like both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. I just don’t think either of them is going to be our next president. Biden and Edwards are both starting to look pretty good, and, okay fine, I am still holding out hope that Gore will still decide to run. Is that so wrong?

But I did enjoy this satirical take on the typical criticism of Hillary Clinton from The Onion.

The Ballad of Magellan

Saturday, February 24th, 2007

I’m off to the baby naming for Lilah, so no time to post anything original this morning. Instead, I leave you with this Animaniacs song about Magellan, that for some reason really cracks me up. Enjoy!

Six Degrees of Sir Francis Bacon: Bill Gates

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

First, read the rules of the game.

This week’s challenge is only the richest person in the whole wide world, but otherwise probably just like you and me, Microsoft macrostar Bill Gates.

I was able to link Bill Gates to Sir Francis Bacon in four degrees, though that shouldn’t stop you from posting a longer response, or looking for a shorter one. Entries will be accepted until midnight on Thursday, March 1.

Good luck!

And congratulations once again to Lee for winning last week’s challenge by linking Master Shake to Sir Francis Bacon in four degrees:

Master Shake > Meatwad > Abraham Lincoln > William Shakespeare > Sir Francis Bacon

Master Shake appears in Aqua Teen Hunger Force with Meatwad, who has the ability to take the shape of a samurai version of Abraham Lincoln, who schooled himself in the works of William Shakespeare, who is believed by some to be Sir Francis Bacon.

Thursday Morning Riddle

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

I’m the fur on a chick; on a chicken, the beak;
I’m routine on a cab; on a sub, I’m unique;
In my pages, I’m numbered; in news, I’m oblique;
And I’m often accused of a cowardly streak.

Who am I?

UPDATE: Riddle solved by Susan. See comments for answer.

The Headline Game – 2/21/07

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007

There’s absolutely nothing to work with today at The Onion. The fake headlines are all clearly fake headlines. So instead, this week I invite you to play a different game. Sorry for the last minute substitution.

Six of the twelve names below have been the Secretary General of the United Nations. The other six are characters from Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. Can you tell the historical names from the fantastical?

  1. Padme Amidala
  2. Kofi Annan
  3. Jar Jar Binks
  4. Boutros-Boutros Gali
  5. Lord Gladwyn Jebb
  6. Qui-Gon Jinn
  7. Obi-Wan Kenobi
  8. Ban Ki-Moon
  9. Trygve Halvdan Lie
  10. U Thant
  11. Chancellor Finis Valorum
  12. Mace Windu

Bonus Question: Can you pick out the current UN Secretary General from the list?

Answers: Phantom Menace, United Nations

How did you do?