Monday, September 05, 2005

One More Time On Katrina

I just want to say that I hope that there are extensive investigations into why the local and state governments did not have a plan to evacuate those who could not evacuate themselves (the poor, the elderly, and the infirm); why the federal government, with its now obviously stupid cost-benefit analyses, could not, in the last 7 years, fund the $14 billion improvements to the levees and restoration of the coastlines that New Orleans had asked for; and why, why, why FEMA is such a disaster in and of itself. On the last one, I hope heads roll. Obviously, FEMA's director must go as soon as possible, but I hope that every single responsible party is exposed and fired, if not beheaded. While it's not clear, yet, what role Bush played in all of this, it's not a good sign that his administration has already begun to use its typical ass-covering strategy: blaming anyone else in the room. I can only hope that no one at the federal level impedes an investigation that is likely to leave almost everyone in Washington with mud on his or her face, or worse.

OK, that's all I can muster. My heart swells high with rage.

Your regularly scheduled cognitive science blogging will return shortly.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Happy Birthday Mixing Memory

Mixing Memory turns 1 year old today. Blogging for a year has been an interesting experience. I've run into many stimulating people, learned a lot about a bunch of different things, and wasted many hours.

Thank you to everyone who's visited in the last year. I hope you all continue to drop by. You should all feel free to write me with requests for posts, suggestions for the blog (after a year, I still don't really know what the hell I'm doing), or glowing praise. I prefer the last of these personally, but the first two are probably better in the long run. Also, it appears that the blog world says happy first birthday with an influx of comment spam. If anyone knows how to get rid of it, I'd love to hear from you in particular.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Katrina and the Media

There's been a lot of blaming going around in the wake of Katrina, especially on liberal blogs. Clearly, the federal government was not ready for this, and since they are in charge of the federal government, the Bush administration and the Republican controlled congress are likely deserving of much of the blame. But I have to admit that I feel it's too early to blame anyone for specific failures. People have been upset about the lack of aid in Mississippi, but it appears that the military has just today cleared the airport of the tons of debris the storm surge left there. It took them more than three days of working 24 hours a day to do so. The point is, most of us aren't on the ground in the stricken areas, and we just don't know what sorts of logistical problems the people there are facing, and how much preplanning might have mitigated some of those problems. All of that will come out eventually, but for now, I think blaming anyone for the delays, difficulties, and roadblocks in distributing aid is uncalled for.

Of course, one thing we do know for certain is that resources that should have been used to improve the New Orleans levies were diverted to Homeland Security:
As the New Orleans Times-Picayune has reported in a devastating series of articles over the last two years, city and state officials and the Corps of Enginners had repeatedly requested funding to strengthen the levees along Lake Pontchartrain that breeched in the wake of the flood. But the Bush administration rebuffed the requests repeatedly, reprograming the funding from levee enhancement to Homeland Security and the war on Iraq.
While that is truly unconsciounable, and the Bush administration should receive harsh criticism for this, let's wait until we figure out just what happened to the levies, and whether any amount of improvement might have prevented it, before we blame Bush or anyone else for what happened (and I say this as someone who's always prepared to blame Bush for his failures).

But there is one group whom I think we can start to blame for its role in this disaster now, and should continue to blame for a long time: the media. More and more, I've seen people in Mississippi say that they, or others they've come into conact with, didn't think that the hurricane would hit them, and thus didn't evacuate despite their governor asking them to do so. They thought it was going to hit New Orleans. That the hurricane hit Mississippi so hard should not have been unexpected. All of the forecast models, which, to their credit, the media did air, showed a projected path that covered much of Mississippi. However, every news channel and program I saw discussed New Orleans, and only New Orleans, in the days leading up to Katrina's landfall. Even though the projected path of the hurricane, which they themselves were showing, covered all three states directly affected, all the media could talk about was New Orleans. What were people in Mississippi to think? If the media is so sure that it's going to hit New Orleans, why should they leave their homes?

That's just irresponsible reporting. The media should have made it abundantly clear that the hurricane was likely to hit Biloxi and the rest of the Mississippi coast. The threat to New Orleans was the more dramatic story, but the threat to Mississippi and Alabama was the responsible story. I guarantee you that people in Mississippi lost their lives because of the media's focus on New Orleans. And that's tragic.

Everyone Interested in Cognitive Science Should Read This

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was clear that David Marr was one of cognitive science's brightest young minds. His philosophical, computational, and mathematical approaches to the problems presented to researchers by vision have been incredibly influential. Sadly, he was diagnosed with leukemia in the late 70s, and died in 1980 at the age of 35 (here is a short biography). As he was dying, he wrote a book that "redefined and revitalized the study of human and machine vision." The book, titled Vision: A Computational Investigation into the Human Representation and Processing of Visual Information, was published in 1982. The book is so good that you have to wonder what great things Marr might have done if he hadn't died so young. Much of Vision betrays the urgency with which he wrote it, as it often appears to be written in the form of edited personal notes, and much of it is difficult to read. I remember reading it for the first time and not understanding a word after about midway through Chapter 2. After a course on vision, I picked it back up, and it then made sense, but it still wasn't an easy read.

But the first chapter is easy to read, and it contains within it a philosophical statement that has influenced researchers in many areas of cognitive science who study things that are distantly related, at least experimentally, to vision. Among other things, the philosophical statement defines three levels of description in the study of the mind. Here are Marr's labels and tasks that Marr gives to the three levels (from Chapter 1, Figure 1-4):
  • Computational theory: What is the goal of the computation, why is it appropriate, and what is the logic of the strategy by which it can be carried out?
  • Representation and algorithm: How can this computational theory be implemented? In particular, what is the representation for the input and output, and what is the algorithm for the transformation?
  • Hardware implementation: How can the representation and algorithm be realized physically?
At the highest level, the level of computational theory, we search for descriptions and explanations of the computational problems faced by the mind, how those problems fit into the larger cognitive picture, and what sorts of strategies the mind might use to solve those problems. This is the level at which many cognitive psychologists, linguists, and philosophers of mind operate. You look for a particular cognitive task or ability, develop hypotheses about how it works, and then look for behavioral data to support your hypotheses. At the next level, below computational theory, is the algorithmic level. Here your focus is on the specific computational properties of the cognitive system: how does it represent the information it receives and processes, and what algorithms does it use to process that information? Cognitive psychologists, linguists, computer scientists, and some neuroscientists all work at this level of description and explanation. Finally, since cognition happens in the brain, you have to understand how it happens in the brain. Thus, the hardware implementation level involves the study of the neural mechanisms underlying cognition. This is the level at which neuroscientists, along with some computer scientists, linguists, and cognitive psychologists, along with the occasional philosopher of mind work. Different individuals in different disciplines will place more emphasis on different levels of description, but Marr argues that to gain a complete picture of the mind, or vision specifically, we have to approach it from all three.

Marr does such a good job of clearly describing the importance of this approach, and the approach itself has been so influential in cognitive science, that I think anyone who is interested in the discipline should read this first chapter. Thanks to brainsci001, whose real name I do not know, for pointing me to the web copy of the chapter.