Valentines

Inspired by the Planet Money podcast, I’d like to celebrate Valentine’s Day by giving out some virtual valentines to things I’m especially glad are real things that exist.

Water Bears

Whether or not tardigrades, or “water bears,” can really survive quantum entanglement, they still have a lot going for them: they’re insanely tough and oddly charismatic. So I was absolutely delighted to discover a wholesome puzzle game based on rehydrating tardigrades that are in their dried-out hibernation-like “tun” state. The puzzles themselves are only fine, but Water Bears is totally worth playing just for the tardigrades. They even make cute alien-ish purring sounds.… Read the rest

A car-less person’s guide to hiking around Berkeley

Last week I was happy to have the opportunity to attend a research workshop on causality, hosted by the Simons Institute here at Berkeley. One of the other attendees asked for recommendations for things to do around the East Bay. Maybe because most of my time here has been under the influence of covid (but, honestly, I’m kind of just like this), I found myself rambling about different places I like to walk or hike around. Berkeley is a hiker’s paradise: hills overlooking the bay and San Francisco (with beautiful sunsets to boot), a huge diversity of plant life, and many miles of trails, all within 1.5 hours of the UC Berkeley campus on foot.… Read the rest

Curiosity in minds and machine learners

In the “classic” machine learning paradigm of supervised learning, there’s no role for curiosity. The goal of a supervised learning algorithm is simply to match a set of labels for a provided dataset as closely as possible. The task is clearly defined, and even if the algorithm was capable of wondering about the meaning of the data pouring into it, this wouldn’t help with the learning task at all.

For humans, on the other hand, curiosity seems to be an integral part of how we learn. Even before starting school, children are hard at work figuring out the world around them.… Read the rest

Life is amazing: Fish-eating bat (Myotis vivesi)

Two Myotis vivesi bats roosting in a rock crevice

Bats make up around one-fifth of all mammal species, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’ve adapted to just about every ecological niche you could think of. Even so, I think Myotis vivesi is something special. These little guys subsist almost entirely on seafood that they catch during long fishing expeditions on the open ocean. They have huge claws to grasp fish with, and long, stable wings that allow them to glide efficiently and carry heavy prey. During the day, they roost among the rocks and cliffs of islands in the Gulf of California. Since their land home is quite dry and they spend so much time at sea, they can even get by only on seawater!… Read the rest

A common misconception about the Chinese Room Argument

The “Chinese Room Argument” is one of the most famous bits of philosophy among computer scientists. Until recently, I thought the argument went something like this: Imagine a room containing a person with no Chinese language proficiency and a very sophisticated book of rules. Occasionally, someone slides a piece of paper with a sentence in Chinese written on it under the door. The room’s inhabitant (let’s call them Clerk) uses the rulebook to look up each Chinese character and pick out the appropriate characters to form a response, which they slide back under the door. Clerk has no idea what the characters or the sentences they form mean, but with a sufficiently sophisticated rulebook, it would look to outside observers like Clerk was conversant in written Chinese.… Read the rest