The zombie apocalypse and education in the computational sciences

How to respect both logical positivism and the zombie apocalypse while educating computer scientists.

Screenshot 2017-03-10 04.25.01, a web site that supports research on what linguists call the “heads” of groupes nominaux (“noun phrases,” in English).

In my professional life, one of my pet peeves is scientific discussions that involve the verb to believe.  For example:

  • …we believe that [joint circumscription] will be important in some AI applications.  (John McCarthy, Circumscription–A form of non-monotonic reasoning, publication date unclear) 
  • We believe ontologies are key requirements for building context-aware systems… (H. Chen, T. Finin, and A. Joshi, An ontology for context-aware pervasive computing environments, 2003)
  • We believe enzyme-loaded erythrocytes may have therapeutic possibilities for several diseases.  (Ihler et al. 1973, Enzyme loading of erythrocytes, which I should note has been cited over 300 times nonetheless)

I have actually been–on multiple occasions–cautioned against using formulations like Je pense que… (“I think that…”) in some professional situations in France, as it’s considered a sign of having a position that you’re not actually confident that you can defend.  (Native speakers, can you comment on this?)

I’m not shy about bringing up my problems with the verb to believe in any discussion in which I find myself that claims to be scientific, be those lab meetings or reviews of papers/grants/whatever.  I would not label myself as a logical positivist, but I try to always keep in mind the potential logical positivist position–it’s not a bad foundation for a philosophy of science.  (See, I didn’t say I think that it’s not a bad foundation for a philosophy of science–I flat-out asserted it.  In academic writing, I would follow that assertion with a few credible citations.)

Follow these links for more information on the zombie apocalypse and…

In light of that tendency of mine towards the empirical and the epistemological, students are often surprised to learn of my concerns regarding the upcoming zombie apocalypse.  Clearly, zombies are something about which I have no empirical data, and one would have to classify the upcoming zombie apocalypse as something about which I have beliefs, but not knowledge, and therefore outside of the realm of something that I would talk about in my professional life.  So, yes: students are surprised when I bring it up.  (As far as I can tell, my French colleagues just think I’m crazy, or chalk it up to some quirk of the Anglo-Saxon psyche, or something.  I actually have no clue what my American colleagues think.)

Here’s the thing: the zombie apocalypse is an engaging point of entry into the problem of making robust systems.  In the context of computer programming, you could think of “robustness” as the ability of a program do deal with the unexpected–making speech recognition systems that will work in a crowded restaurant (impossible 20 years ago, not unusual today), or building sentence analyzers that won’t reformat your hard drive if someone passes them a sentence in Uzbek. In particular, the upcoming zombie apocalypse is an engaging entry point to the problem of how to think about the problem of making robust systems.  The issue is that a major contributor to robustness is planning for unanticipated inputs (I had English in mind when designing my sentence analyzer, and then someone gave it a sentence in Uzbek) or operating conditions (I never thought about someone trying to use my speech recognition system with a lot of noise in the background).  Seulement voilà–the thing isit’s the nature of unanticipatedness that we have trouble coming up with the unanticipated.  Even more fundamentally a problem: we often have trouble getting into the mindset of taking seriously the very idea that unanticipated inputs or operating conditions are even plausible.  In fact, they are; but, how to get students to think about something that is, a priori, difficult to conceptualize?  Posing the question as how will your approach work when the zombie apocalypse comes? typically leads to a laugh–and seems to give one a way to think seriously about what kinds of things might happen that you haven’t actually thought about yet.  To think seriously about things that it’s difficult to think about by means of thinking non-seriously about things that don’t exist, you might say.  You might say that–if you haven’t really thought about the upcoming zombie apocalypse.

English notes

pet peeve: something that annoys a specific person a lot.  To call something a pet peeve, it should be rather specific to that person, especially with respect to the extent that it bothers them or with respect to the extent that they are sensitive to it.  For example, traffic jams wouldn’t really be anybody’s pet peeve–everybody is annoyed by traffic jams.  However, traffic jams caused by trash trucks doing their collections during rush hour could be someone’s pet peeve-say, if they happen to actually notice them more than most people would, in a situation where most people don’t particularly care whether or not a traffic jam was caused by a trash truck doing its collections during rush hour–they are equally annoyed by all traffic jams.  How it was used in the post: In my professional life, one of my pet peeves is scientific discussions that involve the verb “to believe.”  

French notes

la robustesse: robustness.  You can use this in a lot more ways in French than in English.  For example:

  • Hardiness would probably be the English-language equivalent here, where we’re talking about plants and their illnesses: Différentes maladies peuvent entraîner un flétrissement des tubercules qui se traduit, à son tour, par une perte de robustesse des plants.  (Source: Sketch Engine web site)
  • Toughness would probably be the equivalent here, where what’s being discussed is fabric: Ce tissu se distingue par sa robustesse, sa longévité et son confort.  (Source: click here)

5 thoughts on “The zombie apocalypse and education in the computational sciences”

  1. Yes, “je pense que” implies the speaker only gives a strong opinion but is not totally certain about it, just a tiny little more than “je crois que”. When we are certain we say “je sais que” for instance .
    “Pet peeve” equivalent is ” “la bête noire” . “Les embouteillages sont ma bête noire” .

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I worked for a while in the Nuclear Industry and had a role on the Site Emergency Team. I was the note-taker. So once a year we had a full-scale exercise where some bods with brains would come up with a fictional disaster and we would have to respond in real time whilst being watched by men from the Ministry (sadly not wearing bowler hats). I always had trouble staying serious and fantasised in my head that I would write 11:14 – The Fat Controller (this is a reference to Thomas the Tank Engin, a wonderful series of children’s books by the Reverend W Awdry and at one point narrated by Ringo Starr for television) looked bewildered. 12:03: Eureka, shouted The Fat Controller. Of course, Pizza is the answer, pizza is the answer to all things. Etc etc. My point is that you are absolutely right … it is extremely difficult to imagine seriously the unimaginable. Fortunately for the world at large, I moved into a different role and was not therefore a danger to the collective community should a catastrophe have really occurred. I should also note the work we were involved in was all about decommissioning and there was virtually no active material left on site at the time I was there. In case you are alarmed, that is.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, but I AM alarmed. Very, very alarmed.

      My version of your note-taking was a college catalogue that I wrote, along with my father, in a series of letters between the two of us during the 1980s. It was to be a college of janitorial science. I liked to imagine hospital rounds: “let’s increase the lidocaine drip to 1.25 mg/kg/minute and empty the small trash can in the corner.”

      In America, I think that a bete noire is considerably stronger than a pet peeve, but I can’t swear to it–these are hard (although not impossible) things to quantify/verify…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Haha! I love the Janitorial Science College. I could certainly have fun contributing to the brochure …. I think it is generally stronger in Britain too. Not knowing enough about colloquial French (remember, I still very much have stabilisers and L-plates on) I, too, can’t really comment but certainly on the small Island off Europe we would use une bête noire to describe the absolutely worst thing that offends us. For example I would say ‘my bête noire is photocopiers … they absolutely hate me and are clearly out to sabotage my work at any opportunity’ whereas I might say ‘my pet peeve is cyclists who think the pavement (sidewalk) is for them to use whenever the whim takes them. I think. Fortunately for your anxiety, I am no-where near any nuclear codes nor any active particles so far as I know!

        Liked by 1 person

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