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Which level of language does a computer have to master, so that one has to concede it actually “understands” the language and is intelligent? That’s one of the basic questions addressed by the Eliza program. (Try it out here, if you don’t know it.)

Now Eliza, or all the 1 million other clones of it, uses a small dictionary of key words and scans the text for these. So when you say “I don’t get along with my wife.” it might reply “Tell me more about your family.” as it recognizes the key word “wife”.

Taxi drivers in Beijing, at least the better ones, have the same level of proficiency in English as these programs do.

On my last visit to the People’s Republic I was lucky enough to have such a specimen, who was eager to practice, as a driver. He would try out all of his memorized phrases on me: “Where do you want to go?” “Do you want to see the Bird’s Nest?” (= the big Olympic stadium) “Do you want to see the Forbidden City?” “How long are you staying in Beijing?”

All of these were uttered with the same level of clarity as a good computer generated voice and for about 2 minutes I had the honest impression that he actually spoke English. But when you asked even simple questions such as “Where did you learn English?” or “Did you learn English in school?”, his only reply was a short “Sorry.”

I later found out that all taxi drivers in Beijing had to memorize certain names and phrases for the Olympic Games.

… “Ça va?

It still feels so strange to me when I casually meet a person for the first time, e.g., through a common friend, and I’m immediately asked, how I am.

I guess I’ll have to start replying “Ça court.” or “Ça chemine.” or “Ça nage.”.

The French-speaking Canadians (or at least one of them) pronounce the French word “grand” (= large) as “grain” (= grain). Quite a challenge for a B2 French speaker.

It has always bothered me that I can get certain things into my rational head, but I still can’t “fully understand” them as I can’t get them into my “heart”.

To start with the gloomiest example:  Of course, I “know” I’ll die. But just like 99.99% of mankind I can’t “step out of myself” to understand what this really means. I can’t understand it with my heart.

Less gloomy: The universe appears to be huge, mind-boggingly huge. Possibly finite but without edges (just as the surface of a balloon does not have any edges to an ant), but certainly very, very big. Though I’m happy to “compute” with “infinity” in a mathematical sense, I have no real idea what infinite space really “means” (or even a single light year).

Least gloomy: In fact, I don’t even know what it means to live on this very planet with 6.5 billion other human beings. But this I begin to understand ever so slightly better thanks to “Breathing Earth“.

The ecological aspect (trying to display CO2 emissions) of this site I still fail to understand, but the idea to have simple dots appear to represent a birth/death somewhere on this planet, I somehow find very accessible.

So if you’re into “strange” experiences, then just go to the site and let it “run” for a while and really try to “understand” that a yellow dot means that a new person in that country was just born and a brown dot means that a person in that country just died.

No, not durak (дурак), the Russian word for “fool“, but “buraq“.

That’s a word I learned today in the small exhibition “Présence absente du prophète Mahomet” about Islamic art. (The things on display were similar to the things here.) A buraq is a flying half woman, half pegasus being (… or rather, a third woman [the head], a third eagle [the wings], a third horse [the legs/body]). If I understood correctly, such a buraq carried the Prophet Muhammed up to heaven.

Given my ignorance concerning the Islam (and pretty much all religions) I was a bit surprised that there were actually depictions of female heads (belonging to buraqs or angels) without a veil on such holy images.

I was also surprised to find out that Muhammed and Jesus were actually very, very, …, very distant cousins (whose last common ancestor was supposedly Abraham, compare e.g. the lists here and here, or the more critical account here.). Funny, what you can learn by studying the genealogy of other families (which were beautifully drawn).
Another thing I learned (which I actually had to read up on later to understand) is the existence of Seth. Every heard of Cain and Abel? Well, there was a third brother! In fact, according to Jewish/Christian/Muslim belief, the whole human lineage descends from Seth’s children.

If there were only sons, where did the children come from? Adam and Eve during their lifespan of about 900 years “multiplied” (as they were told to) and had sex about 55 times, creating a total of 32 sons and 23 daughters (at least according to the account discussed here).

From then on it was incest all the way. But this was no problem, as Adam and Eve’s genes where still perfectly pure without any genetic diseases (as is also discussed here).

What were Henderson’s words again? – I don’t have a problem with religion. What I have a problem with …

According to the Wikipedia article about ventriloquism and according to an account by a former ventriloquist, there’s is absolutely no special “breathing” involved in this art! The main difficulty lies in avoiding the consonants B, F, M, P, Q, V and W by mostly substituting similar sounds.

Still, this does not quite explain how this ventriloquist today could both play the flute and let his puppet sing at the same time. But maybe it is possible to simply “talk” while having a flute in your mouth. I should try this.

Recently, two newborn babies were accidentally swapped in a clinic in Saarlouis. This in itself is of course a horrible tragedy for the parents. But what really amazes me is how they found out about this.

The father decided to take a paternity test as, apparently, he thought that his “daughter” had too little resemblance with him. (Or at least that’s how the German news put it.) But how on earth did his notice that? For me all newborn babies are, of course, very cute and lovable, but most of them look fairly similar. Certainly, I would never ever be confident enoug to say that a newborn baby should have more resemblance with person X.

To me it sounds more as if the news got it wrong. Probably the family noticed certain differences between the oven-warm, freshly come-to-life little worm and the clean poster girl they got back from a nurse later. Slightly different nose. Bigger ears. This I can believe. But I seriously doubt that the father really thought “she doesn’t look anything like me” and decided to take the test.


It’s really amazing how many simple but fascinating thoughts have never crossed my mind so far. Take e.g. the issue of free will. As pretty much any philosophical issue it’s first of all a question of definition. Probably something along the line of “being able to make choices” comes to mind.

But which of the following systems/things (if any) can actually make choices:

A ball rolling down a bumpy road, a pocket calculator computing the digits of the square root of 2 one after another, a robot in a T-maze (just a single intersection where the robot can turn left or right), a chess program.

It’s actually not as trivial to tell as one might think. At least not if one honestly thinks about it for more than just a split second. “Repeatability” partly comes into it (so that you can verify that the same system would have behaved the same/differently in the same setup). The difference between randomness and choice is also not completely trivial. Somehow, there needs to be a “conscious” decision. But how can you detect consciousness from the outside without introducing a cultural bias (… it has to “think” just like you …)? It also depends on details such as if the chess program “learns” from its past mistakes. The funny thing with many of these phenomena is that when you become very concrete/specific and give very strict conditions on what it means to have a “free will” then suddenly even certain computer programs (maybe using some random sources) have free will, but then you realize this is actually not what you meant by “free will”.

Every day I wonder more and more where this whole “self” which believes to have a “free will” comes from.

What I mean: why is it not closed every day due to terrorist warnings by telephone?

Why does Al Quaeda not just call in an claim to have placed a bomb during rush hour? This would completely disrupt the life of the city for several hours and would cause a damage in the order of several million pounds. And the risk of getting caught is virtually zero … and even if they’d get caught the penalty would be ridiculously low.

Occasionally you have such “prank calls” at high schools. But even there one could ask: why not more often? I mean, if some troublemaker really hates the school, why does he not call every day to claim someone has placed a bomb? Maybe he does, maybe Al Quaeda does or would the same, but there must be some sort of filtering mechanism by the police to tell prank calls from real threats.

How does this work? Do you have to hold the line for a few minutes and explain them how the bombs were built? Do you first have to send in your application with a CV to be taken seriously? It’s probably still possible to tell a 12-year old from an adult, but to tell a potential mass murderer from a lazy, chicken terrorist?

Some people said that during the troubles with the IRA in Northern Ireland the IRA had certain codewords to tell the police so they knew the threat was real. But I can’t believe that this is the usual filtering mechanism. First you blow up something/someone, then you send in your application and then you’re given the TANs.

Does anybody know more about this? I mean sometimes the filtering mechanism fails and, for example, the Eiffel Tower is closed (and evacuated). In my understanding they never find any real bomb in these cases but maybe they just don’t want to spread panic and never tell the public.

I certainly have no terrorist energy myself, but I’m just wondering how these things work. Certainly, there are “intelligent” (but sick/crazy) people among terrorists and they must have thought of this before. Maybe they even tried. What stopped them? Why are not all transatlantic flights constantly canceled due to bomb threats?

Help me out and explain the world to me please. Oh, and please use your recognized terrorist codeword so I can be sure you know what you’re talking about.


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