Neural nets respond to pranks like children do

A recent article by Janelle Shane talked about her recent experience with Microsoft Azure’s image processing API. If you’ve not come across her work before, I recommend starting with her candy hearts, or else new My Little Pony characters, invented by a computer. Anyway:

The Azure image processing API is a software tool powered by a neural net, a type of artificial intelligence that attempts to replicate a particular model of how (we believe) brains to work: connecting inputs (in this case, pixels of an image) to the entry nodes of a large, self-modifying network and reading the output, “retraining” the network based on feedback from the quality of the output it produces. Neural nets have loads of practical uses and even more theoretical ones, but Janelle’s article was about how confused the AI got when shown certain pictures containing (or not containing!) sheep.

A foggy field, incorrectly identified by an AI as containing sheep.
There are probably sheep in the fog somewhere, but they’re certainly not visible.

The AI had clearly been trained with lots of pictures that contained green, foggy, rural hillsides and sheep, and had come to associate the two. Remember that all the machine is doing is learning to associate keywords with particular features, and it’s clearly been shown many pictures that “look like” this that do contain sheep, and so it’s come to learn that “sheep” is one of the words that you use when you see a scene like this. Janelle took to Twitter to ask for pictures of sheep in unusual places, and the Internet obliged.

An AI mistakes a sheep for a dog when it is held by a child.
When the sheep is held by a child, it becomes a “dog”.

Many of the experiments resulting from this – such as the one shown above – work well to demonstrate this hyper-focus on context: a sheep up a tree is a bird, a sheep on a lead is a dog, a sheep painted orange is a flower, and so on. And while we laugh at them, there’s something about them that’s actually pretty… “human”.

Annabel with a goat.
Our eldest really loves cats. Also goats, apparently. Azure described this photo as “a person wearing a costume”, but it did include keywords such as “small”, “girl”, “petting”, and… “dog”.

I say this because I’ve observed similar quirks in the way that small children pick up language, too (conveniently, I’ve got a pair of readily-available subjects, aged 4 and 1, for my experiments in language acquisition…). You’ve probably seen it yourself: a toddler whose “training set” of data has principally included a suburban landscape describing the first cow they see as a “dog”. Or when they use a new word or phrase they’ve learned in a way that makes no sense in the current context, like when our eldest interrupted dinner to say, in the most-polite voice imaginable, “for God’s sake would somebody give me some water please”. And just the other day, the youngest waved goodbye to an empty room, presumably because it’s one that he often leaves on his way up to bed

Annabel snuggling one of Nanna Doreen's cats.
“A cat lying on a blanket”, says Azure, completely overlooking the small child in the picture. I guess the algorithm was trained on an Internet’s worth of cat pictures and didn’t see as much of people-with-cats.

For all we joke, this similarity between the ways in which artificial neural nets and small humans learn language is perhaps the most-accessible evidence that neural nets are a strong (if imperfect) model for how brains actually work! The major differences between the two might be simply that:

  1. Our artificial neural nets are significantly smaller and less-sophisticated than most biological ones.
  2. Biological neural nets (brains) benefit from continuous varied stimuli from an enormous number of sensory inputs, and will even self-stimulate (via, for example, dreaming) – although the latter is something with which AI researchers sometimes experiment.
John looking out of the window.
“Ca’! Ca’! Ca’!” Maybe if he shouts it excitedly enough, one of the cats (or dogs, which are for now just a special kind of cat) he’s spotted will give in and let him pet it. But I don’t fancy his chances.

Things we take as fundamental, such as the nouns we assign to the objects in our world, are actually social/intellectual constructs. Our minds are powerful general-purpose computers, but they’re built on top of a biology with far simpler concerns: about what is and is-not part of our family or tribe, about what’s delicious to eat, about which animals are friendly and which are dangerous, and so on. Insofar as artificial neural nets are an effective model of human learning, the way they react to “pranks” like these might reveal underlying truths about how we perceive the world.

And maybe somewhere, an android really is dreaming of an electric sheep… only it’s actually an electric cat.

Games to Play With Your Child in Which You Barely Have to Move or Talk

Games to Play With Your Child in Which You Barely Have to Move or Talk by by Raquel D'Apice (The Ugly Volvo)
I see a lot of ideas online for things to do with your child, but most of them are a lot of work. Many of them involve an unnerving amount of craftiness and/or require going out to buy things. Almost all of them involve moving around which, many days, is fine, but some days can be pretty rough. N...

I see a lot of ideas online for things to do with your child, but most of them are a lot of work. Many of them involve an unnerving amount of craftiness and/or require going out to buy things. Almost all of them involve moving around which, many days, is fine, but some days can be pretty rough. Not that I don’t love getting down on the floor and playing with my kid (I love it a great deal) but I’m an adult in my mid-thirties. I can pretend to be a dinosaur for about 90 minutes (something I happily list on my professional resume) but after an hour and a half, all bets are off. And given that many days I’m home with my son for over eight hours, things can get a bit dicey.

I’ve taken the liberty of brainstorming some fun child/parent activities in which your child can be adventurous and creative and you can lie on the sofa reading a book. Here’s my list so far.

The Pig War of 1859

The Pig War of 1859 (Historic UK)
Undeniably one of the most obscure and unusual 'wars' in history, this is the story of how the killing of an escaped pig almost caused a war between the United States and Britain.

‘The Pig War’ is perhaps one of the most obscure and unusual wars in history. The story begins back in 1846 when the Oregon Treaty was signed between the US and Britain. The treaty aimed to put to rest a long standing border dispute between the US and British North America (later to be Canada), specifically relating to the land between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific coastline.

The Oregon Treaty stated that the US / British American border be drawn at the 49th parallel, a division which remains to this day. Although this all sounds rather straightforward, the situation because slightly more complicated when it came to a set of islands situated to the south-west of Vancouver. Around this region the treaty stated that the border be through ‘the middle of the channel separating the continent from Vancouver’s Island.’ As you can see from the map below, simply drawing a line through the middle of the channel was always going to be difficult due to the awkward positioning of the islands.

An early map of San Juan

The 1969 Easter Mass Incident

a post (gallusrostromegalus)
The 1969 Easter Mass Incident Content Warnings: Religion, food, symbolic cannibalism, symbolic gore, penis mention, Blasphemy, SO MUCH BLASPHEMY, weapons, war mention. Mind the warnings and your...

When my dad was a young man and still a practicing catholic, he participated in a small church communion that nearly got him and six other people excommunicated.

Father Patrick ran a small church outside of California Polytechnical and tended to be… rather more liberal in his interpretations of scripture than most of the church was, which made him something of a hit with the local students and liberally-inclined populace.  Pat went to all manner of civil demonstrations, condemned the shit out of the vietnam war and the politics that lead to it and so on.  In January of 1969 a series of incidents lead him to start exploring “nontraditional” means of holding Mass as a means of reaching out to his community and exploring his own faith, which ultimately culminated in the 1969 Easter Mass Incident.

For those of you who weren’t raised catholic, Communion is this ritual where you become one with Jesus by eating a really horrible bland wafer cookie and taking a shot of wine (called hosts), which then *literally* become the flesh and blood of jesus in your mouth, allowing him to become one with you.  It’s big McFucking deal, and you have the opportunity to take communion at every mass.  All this had to be explained to me second-hand because after this and Dad’s 51 days in the army, Dad decided he wouldn’t inflict religion on any children he might have in the future.

#parenting #protip Use gaffer tape to keep your kids quiet on long car journeys.

https://danq.me/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/DRprXIvXUAEpyDn1.jpg

This Is Not What Juggling Looks Like

Do you remember how earlier this year, half of the Internet went nuts about the fact that – based on the emoji they’d drawn – Google didn’t know how to make a cheeseburger? It was a fun distraction from all the terrible stuff happening in the world, which was nice, but it also got me to thinking: how many other emoji are arguably “wrong” in their depiction of whatever-it-is they’re supposed to be showing.

Until recently, Google's depiction of a burger in their emoji for that purpose.
I was never so offended by the fact that the cheese was underneath the burger as I was by the fact that the cheese was depicted as having somehow been melted… by the bun.

I’ve got a special kind of relationship with emoji to begin with. I wouldn’t even call it love-hate, because that would imply that there’s something about them that I love. But I certainly think that they’re culturally-fascinating, and I wonder how future anthropologists will look back on this period of our history: the time that we went back to heiroglyphics for a while! It’s great to have a convenient, universal, lazy icon set that anybody can use… but it’s unfortunate that people use them for literal rather than figurative meaning (such as sharing the [🎗️ | reminder ribbon] icon with somebody because it’s pink and you’re doing a breast cancer awareness fun run… without realising that the ribbon is only pink on your model of phone), or for figurative meanings that depend on specific iconography (such as sending the [🍆 | aubergine/eggplant] emoji to somebody to tell them that you’ve got an erection… which is apparently a thing – I’m out of touch with youth culture… without knowing that their LG phone is going to render it as super-bent).

Microsoft and Samsung's "ATM" emoji
These two are both emoji for “ATM”: the former, by Microsoft, shows a cash machine. The latter looks like a corporate headquarters for a company called “ATM”. If you’re using a picture because it has a specific meaning, you perhaps ought not to use emoji!

Emoji can be a way to accentuate a message, but they aren’t and shouldn’t be the message themselves because the specifics of their display are not so much a standard as a loose collection of standards implemented by some… imaginative… graphic artists… And some cases are particularly bad:

Apple's "juggling" emoji.
This isn’t what juggling looks like, Apple.

Apple seem to think that three-ball juggling involves all three balls being in the air at the same time. And also, for some reason, wearing a bowler hat and a bow tie.

Animated GIF showing three-ball juggling
The most-common three-ball juggling technique is to throw from the inside, catch on the outside.

The idea that three-ball juggling routinely involves multiple balls in the air at once is a common one, but it’s (mostly) false. As the animated GIF above shows, there are two stages to juggling. The first is the stage where one ball is held in each hand and a third ball is in the air. The second is the stage where the juggler throws a ball from their hand in order to free up space to catch the descending ball. This latter one is the only point when there are multiple balls in the air, and even then it’s only two of them (specifically, for conventional N-ball juggling, the number of balls in the air is usually N-2 and occasionally N-1).

Apple’s emoji also places the balls in very unlikely places: consider the two lowest-down balls: they’re both further out than the centre of the juggler’s hands! This means that the juggler is throwing the balls away from himself (presumably out of panic that he’s somehow been hired as a juggler despite not knowing how to juggle).

Speed camera sign
Who’s even seen a camera like this, let alone tried to use one to capture a speeding vehicle?

Yes, yes, I get it: icons should be symbolic rather than representative, and with that in mind Apple’s icon isn’t too bad. Especially not when you compare it to some of the other options.

Google and Samsung's emoji for "juggling".
This is what Google (left) and Samsung (right) think that juggling looks like.

Both Google and Samsung’s emoji have the same problem: that all the balls are bunched up in the same path, like they’re being fired from a shotgun at an unsuspecting children’s entertainer. They form an arch over the juggler’s head like a rainbow of mistake, all rocketing from the juggler’s right hand to their left which is clearly going to be incapable of catching them all at once. What we’re seeing, then, is a split second before the moment of photographic perfection: the point at which all the balls are in the air and you don’t have to wait and see what a disaster happens when they all come down at once.

Also, Google: you too? What’s with the bowler hat and bow tie? Is this what jugglers are supposed to wear? Have I been doing it wrong my whole life?

Facebook's "juggling" emoji
Facebook has a picture of… disembodied hands spinning a three-coloured ring with balls on it?

Facebook’s “juggler” emoji is even worse. For a start, it doesn’t actually show a juggler, it shows juggling (and this isn’t a consistent style choice: Facebook’s emoji for e.g. snowboarder, mechanic, farmer, teacher etc. all show a whole person or at least a person from the waist upwards). Secondly, the motion of the balls most-closely represents circle-juggling, which is a way to juggle but isn’t what you normally see jugglers doing: compared to conventional juggling patterns, circle juggling is both harder to do and looks less-impressive!

But even then, it’s confusing: why is the blue ball turning a corner of its own accord to try to avoid the hand? Perhaps this is some kind of magic available only to people who are missing a finger from each hand, as this unusual “juggler” seems to be.

Twitter's "juggler" emoji, before and after September 2016
Twitter changed their “juggler” emoji in September 2016 from the one on the left to the one on the right.

Twitter used to have many of the same problems – circle juggling, balls that randomly change direction in flight, no juggler – until they revamped their emoji collection last year. Now they’ve still got most of those, plus the “all the balls in the air” problem and the most disinterested-looking juggler I’ve ever seen. As he stands there, shrugging, it feels like it needs a speech bubble that says “I have no feelings about what I’m doing whatsoever.” At least he’s not wearing a bowler hat and bow tie, I suppose.

Also: why do we have an emoji for juggler, but not for magician?

The short of it is: emoji have a lot to answer for.

London’s Transport Chief Can’t Do Early Meetings As She Uses Southern Rail

London’s Deputy Mayor for Transport avoids early morning meetings because she relies on Southern Rail to get into the office.

Val Shawcross’ office was trying to set up a meeting and in an email wrote: “Val actually is a morning person but has to use Southern trains to get in to the office so we try not to have too many early starts.”

Jokes That Aged Badly

I’ve lately taken an interest in collecting jokes that haven’t aged well. By which I mean: jokes that no longer work, or require explanation, because they’re conceptually ‘dated’. Typically, these jokes aren’t funny any more, or are only funny to people who were around at the time that they were first conceived, and I imagine that we, as a civilisation, are necessarily relegating more and more jokes into this particular category as time goes on.

A man used to make his wife go to bed first in the winter-time, caller her his warming-pan; which she not well relishing, one night left something smoaking in his place. Finding himself in a stinking pickle: Wife, said he, I am beshit: No, husband, said she, it is only coal dropt out of your warming-pan!
I don’t mean outdated like this joke, published in 1803, but ones that require explanation because a listener is no longer likely to recognise the concepts or people referenced. For example, if it were the case that warming pans were now such an alien concept that nobody knew what they were any more, then the above would certainly qualify (that’s not true yet… right?).

My favourite joke of this category is the following classic student joke, which was relevant when I first heard it in the 1990s:

What’s pink and takes an hour to drink?

Grant cheque

By way of explanation: the grant cheque was how British students used to receive their government aid to support them during their studies. It had become gradually smaller (relative to the value of the pound) over time by failing to rise in value in line with inflation, and was printed on pink paper, hence the joke. There was an effort to revive it in the late 1990s/early 2000s as follows:

What’s green and takes an hour to drink?

Loan cheque

By this point, the grant had been replaced by the student loan, whose payments came printed on green paper instead. This is, of course, simply an example of adapting an old joke for a new audience, as we’ve all seen time and again with the inevitable string of recycled gags that get rolled-out every time a celebrity is accused of a sex crime. Incidentally, the revised form of the grant cheque/loan cheque joke has itself become dated as students now typically receive all of their loan payments directly to their bank accounts for convenient immediate spending rather than what my generation had to do which was to make the beans-and-rice stretch another few days until the cheque cleared.

An idiot asks a silversmith to make him a lamp. 'How big do you want me to make it?' the silversmith asks. 'Big enough for eight people to see by.'
This 4th/5th century joke (presented with a contemporary translation) doesn’t count, because it’s still flipping hilarious.

Here’s another example:

Bill and Ben the flower pot men are in the garden.

“Flobalobalobalob,” says Bill

Ben replies: “You’re drunk, Bill.”

Now those of you who are about my age, or older, are unlikely to see why this joke has dated badly. But it is dated, because the 2001 reboot of The Flower Pot Men (now called simply Bill and Ben) features the titular characters speaking in reasonably-normal English! The idea that they were only speaking Oddle Poddle because they were too pissed to speak English is no longer a point of humour, and increasingly the population won’t remember the original stilted dialect of the flower pot men. If we assume that anybody under the age of 24 is more-likely to have come across the newer incarnation then that’s a third of the population!

Let’s try another, which became dated at about the same time:

Why are hurricanes names after women?

Because when they come they’re wet and wild and when they go they take your house and your car.

The history of how we’ve named hurricanes over the centuries is really quite interesting, and its certainly true that for the majority of the period during which both meteorologists and the general public have shared the same names for tropical storms they’ve been named after women. Depending on where you are in the world, though, it’s not been true for some time: Australia began using a mixture of masculine and feminine names during the 1970s, but other regions took until the millennium before they followed suit. However, the point still remains that this joke has been dated for a long while.

Eye of a storm.
Why is a topical joke like a tropical storm?
When it comes, you’ve never seen anything like it. By the time it goes, you’re sick of it.

Here’s a very highly-charged joke from the 1960s which I think we can all be glad doesn’t make much sense any more:

What’s all black and comes in an all white box?

Sammy Davis Jr.

For those needing the context: Sammy Davis Jr. was a black American singer, comedian, and variety show host who triggered significant controversy when he married white Swedish actress May Britt. Interracial marriage was at the time still illegal across much of the United States (such prohibition wouldn’t be ruled unconstitutional until the amazingly-named “Loving Day” in 1967) and relationships between whites and “coloureds” were highly taboo even where they weren’t forbidden by law.

Topical jokes like that are often too easy, like this one – even shorter-lived – from the summer of 1995, presented here with no further interpretation:

Q: What’s the difference between O. J. Simpson and Christopher Reeve?

A: O. J.’s gonna walk!

Perhaps my favourite strictly-topical joke of this variety, though, comes from 1989:

Q: Why is Margaret Thatcher like a pound coin?

A: She’s thick, brassy, and she thinks she’s a sovereign.

It’s at least two-thirds funny even if you don’t have the full context, and that’s what’s most-interesting about it: it’ll take until the new £1 becomes ubiquitous and the old one mostly-forgotten before it will lose all of its meaning. But as you’ve probably forgotten why the third part of the punchline – “…and she thinks she’s a sovereign” – comes from, I’ll illuminate you. The joke is wordplay: there are two meanings to “sovereign” in this sentence. The first, of course, is that a sovereign is the bullion coin representing the same value as a conventional pound coin.

To understand the second, we must first remind ourselves of the majestic plural, better known as the “royal ‘we'”. In 1989, following the birth of her grandson Michael, Thatcher made a statement saying “we have become a grandmother”, resulting in much disdain and mockery by the press at the time. The Prime Minister’s relationship with the Queen had always been a frosty one, and Thatcher’s (mis)use of a manner of speech that was typically reserved for the use of royalty did nothing to make her look any more-respectful of the monarch.

1952 advertisement for Prince Albert pipe tobacco.
And you thought it was just something to put in your penis. Turns out it’s something to put in your lungs, too.

The final example I’ve got died out as a joke as a result of changing brand identities, more cost-effective packaging materials, and the gradual decline of tobacco smoking. But for a long while, while Prince Albert Pipe Tobacco was still sold in larger quantities as it always had been, in a can, a popular prank perpetrated by radio stations that went in for such things was to call a tobacconist and ask, “Have you got Prince Albert in can?”. The tobacconist would invariably answer in the affirmative, at which point the prankster would response “Well let him out then!” This joke may well predate the “Is your refrigerator running?” prank call that might be more-familiar to today’s audiences.

If you’ve got any jokes that have aged badly, I’d love to hear them. And then, I suppose, have them explained to me.

Tory Momentum clone Activate at war as ‘hackers’ back Jacob Rees-Mogg for PM | Politics | The Guardian

It’s the grassroots political movement whose launch nobody could envy. Now, social media channels for Activate, the centre-right attempt to emulate Momentum’s youth appeal, appear to be at war with each other over backing for Jacob Rees-Mogg to be Britain’s next prime minister.

On Twitter, the @ActivateBritain account has tweeted a string of anti-Theresa May images and issued an “official statement” endorsing the MP for North East Somerset as the next Conservative leader…