Monthly Archives: October 2016

Modes of Cognition, Artificial vs. Human Intelligence

I can think of 4 modes of human cognition:

  • Abstract Reasoning
    • Logic: how all humans universally know that  proof by contrapositive or induction is compelling.
  • Causal Understanding
    • Cause and effect: an infant learns in only a handful of trials that something he drops will hit the floor. Without causal understanding, this would require far more trials to learn.
  • Spatial Intuition
    • Bigger, smaller, inside, outside, etc. We visualize shapes and interactions in our minds without having to see from every angle or test every combination.
  • Pattern Recognition
    • The classic “which of these doesn’t belong?”. Humans are so good at pattern recognition we often find patterns that don’t even exist!

I don’t claim this list is exclusive, but I can’t think of any others. Every form of cognition seems to fall into one of these categories. Yet all forms of AI currently in practical use – neural nets, decision trees, etc. rely on pattern recognition alone. We simply don’t understand the other modes of cognition well enough to formalize them into algorithms.

We don’t even know if they can be formalized into algorithms! It’s possible – though by no means proven – that they might lie outside what Turing Machines can do. The reverse also may be possible – these forms of cognition might boil down in their fundamental elements to a single form of cognition expressible formally, for example as Turing Machine instructions. If so, the fact that we perceive them as different would be a mental illusion.

Either way, the fact remains that we don’t understand these other forms of cognition well enough to formalize into algorithms. Thus, all forms of AI are essentially based on pattern recognition.

Combining these forms of cognition is extremely powerful. A toddler learns to identify cats with only a handful of examples, yet Googe’s best image recognition AI requires millions. By combining spatial intuition with causal understanding and pattern recognition, the toddler learns much more quickly. Relying on pattern recognition alone severely handicaps AI in two critical ways:

  • It learns slower, requiring orders of magnitude more training examples.
  • Properly trained AI can out-perform humans on specific tasks, yet still performs poorly on tasks that are open-ended or outside its training.

A human toddler is still light-years ahead of AI. Will we find a way to make AI better despite these limitations? Will we break through these limitations – find a way to formalize other modes of cognition into algorithms?

These questions and the topics of human cognition, AI, and Turing Machines intrigue me.

Kobo Glo HD: Review & Comparison to Kindle

I recently bought a Kobo Glo HD, mainly out of curiosity to see how it compares with Kindle’s e-readers – specifically, the Kindle 4 and Kindle Touch. I bought it new from Japan for $100, which is cheaper than the Kobo web site price of $130. Now that I’ve been using the Kobo for a couple of weeks, here’s what I’ve found.

First I should list my e-reader priorities:

  • Screen: contrast, resolution, layout, font rendering. Unlike a tablet that does many things, an e-reader does only one. It should do it in the absolutely best way. The screen should be easy to read for hours: high contrast, high resolution, smoothly rendered fonts, optimal spacing, with the maximum possible user customization: margins, line spacing, font typeface, rendering, etc.
  • Book Formats: part of doing only one thing in the best way, an  e-reader should be able to read all popular book formats: at least the big three: MOBI, EPUB, PDF.
  • Reference Lookups: sometimes you want to look up a word in the dictionary or encyclopedia.
  • Calibre Integration: I use Calibre to manage my e-books. Pushing books to the e-reader from Calibre should be seamless. Automatically synchronizing collections, tags, highlights and annotations is a big plus.
  • Free and Open: I mean free as in liberty, not free as in beer. Books are available from many sources; the e-reader should not lock me into any single vendor’s ecosystem, devices or apps.
  • Ecosystem: the e-reader’s native ecosystem – selection, pricing, reviews, etc.

Now here’s how the Kobo Glo HD compares with the Kindle 4 and Kindle Touch.

Screen: overall, Kobo is better than Kindle – it has a nicer-looking easier to read page with a more customizable appearance and layout.

Size: Kobo and Kindle both have 6″ screens. The Kobo is smaller in overall dimensions, and lighter.

Resolution: Kobo is much higher resolution: 1448×1072 which makes 1.55 M pixels. A 6″ diagonal screen is about 4.25″ per side, which makes about 18 square inches, which makes 86k pixels per square inch, linear 294 dpi. This is the same as the Kindle Voyage, which I don’t have and didn’t compare. The Kindle 4 and Touch are both 800×600 which makes 480 K pixels, about 27k pixels per square inch, linear 163 dpi. The Kobo has much higher resolution.

Contrast: about the same. I didn’t observe any significant difference in contrast.

Layout: Kobo has far more layout options. Margins and linespacing can be adjusted over a wider range, and with more fine steps. Kobo spaces fonts and full justification more evenly. Kobo has a fullscreen option that eliminates the header & footer on each page, Kindle does not.

Fonts: Kobo has 7 built-in fonts and can render embedded publisher fonts. Kobo can also use any font files you copy to it, so its fonts are unlimited. Kindle has 3 fonts and you cannot add new ones. Kobo also has a wider range of font sizes with finer sizing steps so you can always get the “just right” size. Kobo has a font weight adjustment the Kindle entirely lacks, so you can get each typeface to the right level of light-dark-contrast to suit your eyes. This weight adjustment works only with Kobo’s built-in fonts, not user-added fonts. Kobo also renders fonts more smoothly – both the characters and kerning.

Lighting: Kobo has built-in lighting whose intensity you can adjust by sliding a finger up and down the left side of the screen. It turns off completely at the dimmest setting (slide downward). This blue-ish cast backlight illuminates the screen evenly. Kindle has no backlight. You can get Kindle cases with built-in lights, but they are expensive, run down the battery quickly, and light the screen unevenly.

Page Turns: Kobo lets you set how often it does a full screen refresh on page turns, where Kindle is fixed at 6. Kindle page turns are slightly faster than Kobo – probably because the Kobo has more than 3 times as many pixels.

Graphics: Many books have graphics and images. The Kindle can explode them full-screen for a better view. Kobo can do this only for books in the KEPUB format. This is not much of a problem because Calibre can convert any book to  KEPUB, and when the book is in KEPUB it opens other Kobo features.

Storage: Kobo has 4 GB of space and just over 3 GB is available for storage. Kindle 4 has 2 GB and Kindle Touch has 4 GB. None of them accept SD cards, but e-books don’t take up much space. You can store thousands of books on any of these devices.

Book Formats: The key difference here is that Kobo supports both MOBI and EPUB while Kindle supports only MOBI. Kobo supports EPUB, MOBI, PDF and KEPUB, Kobo’s proprietary format based on EPUB. Kindle supports MOBI, PDF and AZ3, Amazon’s proprietary DRM locked format based on MOBI. Neither has a good PDF experience – better to use a tablet or computer for PDFs.

Kobo has extra features with books in its native KEPUB format. Graphics can be zoomed and panned, it tracks detailed reading stats like your rate of reading and how long it will take to finish the current chapter or book. Also, the Kobo is more responsive, less sluggish and more accurate when highlighting and annotating text in KEPUB books. This is not a problem, since Calibre can convert any book into the KEPUB format, which does not have to be DRM-locked like Amazon’s proprietary AZ3 format.

Reference Lookups: Kobo and Kindle both have a built-in dictionary and link to Wikipedia. Kobo has dictionaries for additional languages and can translate foreign language words. Both have links to Facebook to share with friends what you are reading, but I haven’t used this feature (I don’t have a FB account).

Calibre Integration: both integrate with Calibre, but Kobo is more seamless in two ways. First, Calibre can automatically manage collections on the Kobo based on each book’s Calibre tags (or other Calibre properties). Thus, when you push your books to Kobo, they are automatically organized the same way they are in Calibre. With Kindle you must manage your collections separately. Second, Calibre synchronizes annotations – highlights and annotations you make on the Kobo appear in Calibre as notes in the book details screen. And if you delete the book from Kobo then re-send it from Calibre, your highlights & notes go with it. This is the killer feature for me – I use highlights & notes in all my books and it’s so nice to have them synchronized and stored. Kindle lets you manually copy your annotations as text files, but there’s no easy way to load them into Calibre attached to your books.

Free & Open: Kobo and Kindle both have a DRM-protected bookstore and ecosystem (apps, devices). Yet Kobo is not locked into this as strongly as Kindle is. Kobo has built-in support for Adobe Digital Editions accounts, making it easy to read library books from Overdrive, which most libraries use. As mentioned above, Kobo also reads both EPUB and MOBI files. Kobo’s software is also more open, and independent software developers have used this to create a more seamless Calibre experience. You can easily edit Kobo’s config files to enable a full screen reading mode, add fonts, and other things.

Ecosystem: here is Kindle’s advantage. Amazon’s selection of books is wider and pricing, while often the same as Kobo, is sometimes lower. Amazon has more readers and more reviews which helps when selecting books.

However, people like me who use Calibre to manage our e-books don’t depend on any single vendor’s ecosystem. I get books anywhere – Kobo, Google, Amazon, library, etc. Copy them to Calibre and organize them by topic so the source is on my PC, not out in someone else’s DRM-locked ecosystem or cloud. I convert them to any format I want, to read on any device I want.

Conclusion: If want the best reading experience and you maintain your books in Calibre, Kobo is your e-reader. The one area where Kindle beats Kobo is in the ecosystem. If you don’t want to manage your e-books yourself, if you prefer the speed and simplicity of single-click reading and you don’t mind being locked into a single vendor’s ecosystem, Amazon is the biggest and cheapest.

One-Device Alternatives: I had a Kindle years ago but for the past few years I read on my tablet because it gives one-device to rule them all – from aviation charts to movies to books to browsing, email and games, I can do everything on one device: my 8″ tablet. My tablet reader is Mantano which is a great app, and I synchronize with books on Dropbox. But this reading system has 2 key drawbacks. First, organizing books on my tablet. I’ve tagged all my books in Calibre but this doesn’t carry over to my tablet, where I have to re-organize everything. Second, my highlights and notes in Mantano cannot appear anywhere else. They don’t sync to Calibre and they are fragile – unless I’m careful I can lose them simply by changing where on the device I store the book. Kobo fixes both of these drawbacks. That could be enough for me to switch back to a dedicated e-reader.

While the Kobo suits my needs better than Kindle, the Kobo isn’t perfect. Here’s what I’d like to see Kobo do to make it better:

  • Enable it to display images in books to full screen, and zoom & pan – like Kindle does.
  • The default system font is too small and not resizeable. Make it bigger. Better yet, add a system font size setting that applies to the home screen, menus, etc.
  • Make it faster / more responsive. It’s a bit laggy pretty much everywhere. Kindle is laggy too, but Kobo is a bit more laggy than Kindle.
  • Keep it open – don’t lock it down with DRM. This is the Kobo’s key differentiating feature from Kindle.