some useful images

•23 May 2020 • Leave a Comment

Over the years, I have accumulated what I feel are some useful images, that I used to help me make sense of some frequently encountered aspects of life and work.

1. One of the twelve labours of Hercules, traditionally the second, is the slaying of the hydra, a multi-headed serpent. (And I hadn’t realized that in some tellings of the story, the hydra was created purely to defeat Hercules. The things we learn.) For all but its one immortal head, two new heads for the hydra would grow in the place of each head cut off, and it required Hercules using a torch to cauterise the stumps to prevent them regrowing.

The image that came to mind is of email as our own personal hydra. For each email to which we send out a response, we then have two (or more than two) additional emails in the inbox. And what I don’t have most days, is a torch.

I do like as well the version of the telling that includes Hera sending a giant crab to distract Hercules, once she sees him prevailing with his sword and torch. It’s tempting to speculate on what the giant crabs that wander through my days, and who is my Hera.

2. Hymenoepimecis argyraphaga is a wasp whose larvae take control over its prey spider. Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is a fungus whose larvae take control of the behaviour of its prey ant. I’m sure there are others, but there are days when I feel that aspects of the roles I play are treated me like the spider or the ant.

It’s an interesting topic for ponderation, because it’s something many of us have felt; that we are acting, but without knowing fully what’s causing us to act.

The next step in this ponderation is to start identifying what I might do to prevent the wasp or the fungus from taking hold in the first place. This I think is a negotiation that I need to have with my work; I understand that in the workplace, I am subject to forces that are not entirely (or even partially) within my control. But I also feel that I can learn to moderate, though perhaps not entirely control, these forces. This will require understanding them more deeply than I do now.

3. Surströmming is a fermented tinned Swedish fish product, a newly opened can of which is believed to be one of the most putrid foods on earth. Cans of this should be opened under water.

Every once in a while, we come across complicated issues in our professional lives. Some of these are complicated only because they’ve been allowed to ferment over time, whereas others are complicated just by their nature.

The image I take here is the need to be careful in unpacking these issues, so that they do not explode once they’re punctured. Or if they are going to explode once punctured, then at least under water, they’re under some small amount of moderations.

The interesting questions then become, how can we tell whether the issue we’re dealing with is one of these cans, and if we decide that it is, what is the under water that we then need to open it safely, so as not to do wider damage. These will be different for every issue, but accumulated experience gives us tools to help make these decisions.

4. In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy saga, Zaphod Beeblebrox at one point finds himself inside the Total Perspective Vortex, which shows him his place in the universe. [SPOILER ALERT] Fortunately for Zaphod, he was at the time in a bubble universe created solely for him, and the Vortex just reinforced the view he had of himself.

So what is the Total Perspective Vortex of academia, or of aikido, or of writing, and how can we without creating our own bubble universe, how can we survive these Vortices?

Each of these areas has multiple Vortices and each Vortex is its own swirling maelstrom. For me, the best way to survive the Vortices is to never enter them in the first place, as escaping a Vortex requires navigating a labyrinth, and we may not have been unspooling the thread to allow us to find the exist and we don’t know what our Minotaur might be, if you’ll give my mixing of images.

a meditation on things I have read

•10 May 2020 • 2 Comments

Some long time ago, I read a story that rang a chord that’s continued to echo through the years. The story was set in a society in which everyone wore masks, in public and if I remember correctly, in private social occasions. They wore different masks for different moods and different situations, and no one showed their biological face, for lack of a better term. Unfortunately, as has happened before and will happen again, I don’t remember how long ago I read it, or where.

As a side note, before going back to the main theme, it would be lovely if there were a searchable database of stories. Stories like the one mentioned above, or others that I’ve remembered and written about, that I would like to go back and reread, but I don’t know how to find them. I don’t know if we could build such a thing,

As I remember, the story contained no memory or explanation of why this society had come to this point of wearing masks. But in light of our current circumstance, I can see a path along which a society forget its faces.

For a bit of time, we may well become such a society, wearing masks in public, and though in retrospect we could easily have imagined it, one path to such a society is less mucky than it used to be. Masks are becoming more common, required in some places. In the darker corners of our imagination, we can speculate on a path through time along which masks become acceptable, a fashion statement of sorts, and fashion can develop an inertia.

But I don’t want to spend too much time speculating on masks; we’ll see over the coming months and years how our future develops.

Rather, I’ve become curious about the prescience of science fiction. This half-remembered story of masks is one, which might or might not predict some aspect of our future.

But this led me to another moment of connection between our world and a fictional world, this time the remade Battlestar Galactica. Dirty Hands is an episode in series 3, about the refinery ship that’s part of the human refugee fleet. Those people who happened to have been put on that ship during the initial flight from the Cylons became essentially trapped, working the dangerous jobs on that ship solely because of fate and regardless of their talents or desires.

Watching the news struck a chord with this episode: stories of health care workers, those people working in stores and delivering groceries, warehouse workers. People who have to be at work, rather than working from home.

And from here, it is only a few steps to our modern variant of India’s Net, the interconnectedness of all things. One evening, I contemplated the services that support our modern world, and our dependency on all of them, much as the Galactica and its fleet were dependent on the refinery ship.

In a sense, this extreme interconnectedness and dependence is a symptom of the world we’ve built over time. I don’t grow my own food and I don’t weave my own cloth, I don’t generate electricity and I didn’t make the bricks of which my house is built. I am but one node in some vast interconnected net.

how the little green men might defeat us humans 5

•13 October 2019 • Leave a Comment

Up to this point, we’ve been exploring this general topic by considering human internalities: what are the aspects and traits about us as humans that might provide ways for the little green men to bring us to our collective knees.  We will come back to these internalities, as there is much much more to explore, but today, I would like to consider some of the externalities that could be brought to bear.

I have not done much in the way for formal research, on this post or on the others in this particular series.  There is a lot of research to be done and it is research that should be done, but I’m taking the opportunity to speculate, pulling from my memories ideas that have stayed with me, variants of some of which I’m trying to work into my own writings.

Perhaps for instance the little green men, who might be none of the above, come to our solar system but remain out in the Oort cloud.  If they were able to calculate sufficiently well, which one would hope they would be able to, then they could be patient and drop well-aimed rocks from the Oort cloud into the inner solar system.

Here, we encounter a potential discussion of aesthetics.  Might they reshape the rocks into shapes or compositions of relevance or importance to them, or would they use the rocks in their raw shapes?  Might they accept the greater challenge of playing billiards with the moons and planets, for no reason other than that is what they feel like doing?  How much damage, for instance, might they be able to do with a single well-aimed rock? And yes, I recognize that this this is drifting into supervillain territory, but I think that might be unavoidable given the topic at hand.

There are variants of the dropping a rock theme.  One that I have never been able to get out of my head is the narratively simple but physically challenging variant of attaching an engine to a rock and accelerating it to some appreciable fraction of the speed of light.

I think the reason this sticks with me is that all of the disaster movies that I love that involve asteroids and meteors, like Deep Impact and Armageddon and Meteor, and the innumerable others, always give us the time to react, to build and equip a ship to go forth and meet the offending rock.  But with a rock moving incredibly fast by our usual standards of movement, there would be no such opportunity.

There is another idea lurking in the bushes here as well, the idea that if something is difficult given our current capabilities, then in some sense it’s legitimately and properly difficult.  I come across this from time to time among my students, more the mathematics students than the aikido students, but I am less and less willing to accept that it’s true. We practice, we evolve our understanding and as we do so, our threshold of difficulty changes.

But there’s more than dropping rocks on our heads.  One of my favorite movies from my early days is the Andromeda Strain.  An alien microbe, for lack of a better term, finds its way to Earth via one of our own space probes sent to collect (as we’re now doing with comets, but that’s another exploration entirely), and it starts misbehaving, at least for a time.

Given the technologies that we’re currently developing, it would be relatively straightforward for an alien species to hire the expertise of human genetic coders to so nefarious things, and it wouldn’t even be necessary to attack humans directly.

Some of these things might not involve an external agent.  A book that I dimly remember, and that I need to read again, is Toolmaker Koan by John McLoughlin, which as I remember it explores the basic issue of civilizations developing tools and technology more quickly than they develop the ethics and sensibilities about using those tools and technologies.

This is an issue that we read about every day, and have since we first developed the ability to sterilize the surface of our planet.  Artificial intelligence might one day find its way into this list of tools and technologies, to go along genetic engineering, nuclear power and even perhaps the internet.  I would probably put human psychology on this list as well, and I would be interested in knowing what things you would want to add to this list.

the rise of the machine world 1

•22 February 2020 • Leave a Comment

We are living through an interesting and potentially frightening time, and this is not a new aspect of life. Arguably, every time in human history has been an interesting and frightening time for those who lived through them. We’ll ignore here the obvious reason that we cannot see the future and we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

We create. Over our history, we have developed remarkable technologies: writing to allow for the further creation of systems of governmental control; knapping flint to create knives and axes; steel and gunpowder to facilitate the killing of one another. And much beyond. The technologies themselves are neutral, and what is important is how we use those technologies.

And now, we are creating something else. Watching or reading or listening to the news, we see example after example of how we are training the machine world to be the Skynet in our future. And there is a part of me that wonders, why. But only a part.

We do like our conveniences. Amazon recommends what we might want to read next, Netflix what we might want to watch next and Spotify what we might want to listen to next. Books and films and bands as yet undiscovered, brought to us by the power of algorithms that spend all their time watching and gathering and evaluating. We have come to enjoy allowing machines to mediate between us and the world around us.

Even more than this, we train our machines to recognize us by our faces and how we walk. We train our machines to read our handwriting, license plates and the printed word, and to make sense of the stories we tell each other.

Soon, we will have no place left to hide.

We’ve been writing about this moment for decades. We have been making movies and television about this moment for decades. We have been speculating about the form and motivations of our coming machine overlords for a long time, and we have explored a vast number of possibilities for how we will subject ourselves to the rule of machines.

But I’ll admit, what worries me isn’t the Singularity, machines developing intelligence and deciding that it would be more appropriate for them to be in charge than us.

No, what worries me are machines trained to follow rules but without the intelligence to know what they are doing. What worries me is the possibility that we come to be ruled by overlords that are the manifestation of algorithms trained by the data we provide, but just a blind algorithm.

I am sure that I cannot reasonably estimate what’s been written about this particular topic, and it isn’t one that I’ve yet explored. On the one hand, I now have another topic for reading and study and exploration. On the other hand, I’m tempted to use this as a door to walk through to explore my imagination. And perhaps I’ll take this latter route.

zen and the art of time management

•9 February 2020 • 2 Comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about time management recently, spurred on methinks by the press of meetings and other commitments that fill my days. I have colleagues who will from time to time let me know, in ways subtle and not so subtle, that they feel my diary is already sufficiently full and I shouldn’t add anything new to the mix.

Setting this to the side for the moment, I do feel that one of my great challenges of the present moment is making good use of my time.

Many years ago, not too long after I joined the university, I went on a time management course. I don’t remember much from that course, but there is one thing I do remember, which is the admonition never to pick up the same piece of paper twice.

It’s a quaint memory, from the very early days of the internet, before email and other means of messaging replaced the pieces of paper that we were then constantly circulating to one another. But it’s a quaint memory that contains some significant truth.

It’s not the picking up of the piece of paper that’s the issue. Bringing this old memory into the present day, it’s the effort we spend to bring a task into our focus and consciousness, and then take the task out again without making any actual progress. And having spent some time recently being reflective and watching myself, I do this a lot.

On the one hand, it’s related to something I think I’ve mentioned before, which is the computer science notion of thrashing, where a computer spends all of its effort swapping data and instructions in and out of its memory, without making any progress on the calculations at hand.

But I want to take this in a different direction. Instead of thrashing, I want to think about mindfulness.

At its simple core, mindfulness is living in the moment. I’m not an expert at zen by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve done a bit of reading and I have come to see the value in focusing on this particular moment, rather than the moment just past or the moment to come.

In how it relates to time management, mindfulness might then be focusing on the piece of paper I have just picked up. The task at hand. The task that I don’t want to do, at least not now. The task that gathers weight and an inertia of its own as I time and again pick up the task and set it down again.

And this I think might be a lesson to take from this reflective speculation. Pick up the piece of paper and deal with the task on the paper, or in the email, or if the task is a large one, advance it.

This is complicated for me at the moment. I am working again some old habits that have dug themselves in deep. I’ve talked in earlier posts about procrastination and about the power of habits. And so I have some work to do, in terms of retraining some old instincts and creating new means of addressing the tasks at hand.

more about the Stone Ones

•8 February 2020 • 2 Comments

So after my last post, I’ve been thinking more about the Stone Ones from Gilgamesh. They have only a very brief appearance, but an important one, being part of Gilgamesh’s journey across the Waters of Death to meet Uta-Napishtim, the immortal survivor of the Great Flood.

Perhaps this comes from all of the other appearance of stony creatures that have appeared since. There is the Golem; there are the stone skinned beings from Game of Thrones; Frankenstein’s Adam isn’t a creature of stone but it is a creature nonetheless, even if one perhaps more intelligent than its creator.

There has been some speculation on who, or what, the Stone Ones were in actuality. Anne Kilmer in Crossing the Waters of Death: the Stone Things in the Gilgamesh Epic, speculates that the stone things are part of a method for moving boats in shallow water, by throwing a (stone) anchor and then pulling the boat along.

But for me, and this might just be me, misses a basic point. I’m not sure of the actual Sumerian (or Akkadian) word, and so I don’t know whether the correct translation is Stone Ones or Stone Things. But Gilgamesh falling upon them and smashing them seems to me to indicate something more than Gilgamesh smashing stone anchors, that could be replaced before he and Ur-Shanabi started on their journey.

So I want to believe there is something more interesting here. When I first read Gilgamesh, and when I just reread it, I had the image of moveable stone statues on Ur-Shanabi’s boat, helping Ur-Shanabi propel the boat to the opposite shore of the Waters of Death.

But this makes no sense. Animate stone statues are not the sort of thing that make any sense on a boat. And this just adds to the whole air of something unusual.

So what might the Stone Ones be? I love the image of the animate stone statues, themselves immortal and immune to the effect of the Waters of Death, But if such existed, then surely there would have been mention of them either somewhere else in Gilgamesh or in some other Sumerian epic. My reading of all of Sumer is its early stages, but I’ve not seen any mention of them in my other reading.

I am operating with very incomplete information at this point, but I am struck by their one brief mention in Gilgamesh. One of the speculations that I have carried with me for a long time is the belief that we might carry echoes of stories from deep human time in our stories, and I’m wondering whether this is the case here.

What references from Gilgamesh, perhaps the Stone Ones, perhaps Enkidu, are echoes of much older stories? What strikes me about the Stone Ones in particular is their singularity, and I remember something that I read somewhere, that it is the unusual and the singular in our old stories that we need to pay attention to.

It is the unusual and the singular that we remember as the important elements in our old stories, as they might be the elements that we have some reason to remember, even if we have forgotten why we need to remember and even if we’ve forgotten what they actually mean.

do we need a spoiler warning after 4000 years

•2 February 2020 • 1 Comment

I have now finished The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Penguin Classics edition edited by Andrew Geoge, as part of my current project of reading ancient Sumer. I’d read Gilgamesh before, and I will admit that I still catch my inner voice sometimes mirroring Jean-Luc Picard telling the story to the Tamarian Dathon on El-Adrel as the Tamarian lies dying, in the Start Treak – The Next Generation episode Darmok.

As strange a story as it is in places, and it can be a bit strange, Gilgamesh captured my imagination from my first encounter, I don’t remember how long ago. Part of the reason stems from the depths of my own ignorance. Gilgamesh stands for me as a stark reminder of the context inherent in stories.

Stories are born of and stories are told by people who share a context, a culture, a history. This won’t come as a revelation to anyone, and my reason for bringing it up isn’t to make some grand claim. Rather, I view it as a constant reminder of all of our interpretations of the world that have slipped through our fingers over the course of years.

What are the echoes, the associations that would have rung for an Akkadian or a Sumerian, listening to a bard recite Gilgamesh? I will admit to being filled with a sense of loss every time I think of this, because these echoes and associations are a key part of that culture, a web tying together more or less strongly so many different stories.

To take just one small such thing, there is a passing reference in Gilgamesh to the Stone Ones. They seem to be the crew of the ferryman Ur-shanabi, who is the only conduit to Uta-napishti across the Waters of Death, who alone among all men survived the great flood and was made immortal by the gods.

When Gilgamesh first encounters Ur-shanabi in his quest to find Uta-napishti, he falls upon the Stone Ones and smashes them, and so is forced then to help Ur-shanabi propel his boat across the Waters of Death.

Strangely, though, Ur-shanabi doesn’t scold or attack Gilgamesh for destroying his crew. And so I’ve become curious and want to know more about the Stone Ones, but there seems to have been very little that’s been written about them. Perhaps this is just how the stories been told and I’m reading too much into it, but Ur-shanabi doesn’t lament the destruction of the Stone Ones. Poetically, such a lamentation would have been an interesting juxtaposition, given that Gilgamesh himself wants to find Uta-napishti to learn the secret of immortality.

But what I would love to know is what a Sumerian would have understood the Stone Ones to be and to mean, if an allegory for something else, and what other stories they had that involved such beings as the Stone Ones.

the transmission of expertise

•12 January 2020 • Leave a Comment

I spend a fair amount of my time thinking about many different aspects of teaching, and one that I’ve written about before at various times is the distance between the teacher and the student. This is the phenomenon that arises between a teacher, particularly a good reflective teacher, continuing to develop their expertise from session to session, from year to year, and the beginning student, who is always coming in at the same point of having a lack of knowledge of the subject.

The challenge here for the teacher is not only the expected challenges of their own professional development, for instance the good or best use of new and changing technology and keeping in touch with advances in their discipline, but also the recognition of this distance and the development of techniques for bridging this increasing distance.

So one very important question is, what are some techniques we can use to bridge this increasing distance. This question has a number of different aspects, and what I would like to explore here is the aspect of impersonal transmission of developed expertise.

What I mean by this is the transmission through books or other media where the teacher is not face to face with their students.

I have written one textbook so far in my days, and it was a rewarding but not easy task. Writing a textbook requires the author to digest the discipline area, decide what to include and what to leave out, but then to structure the material in a way where the reader has what they need in the book, without having the recourse of asking the teacher directly.

And it’s this last point that I think makes writing a textbook a particularly difficult way of transmitting expertise. One thing I know, just from the experience of having read through many textbooks, is that not all authors feel the same way as I do on this point, and as strongly as I hold this view, I don’t feel that it’s appropriate for me to impose my view upon others. Perhaps though I can try to persuade, and perhaps this is a first step along that road.

When I write, just from the experience of having read through many textbooks, I had in mind mathematics textbooks, but if I take a step back and take the wider view, this also applies to aikido and poker textbooks that I’ve read over the years.

Over the weekend, we did some cleaning out of the far corners of the loft, and one of the things I came across was a box of poker books. One interesting common feature of many of these books is that they are less, here is how to play poker, and more, here is how I play poker. A similar issue arises for aikido manuals; here the issue has the additional facet that aikido is fundamentally a physical discipline, and it’s not clear how valuable a printed textbook, as opposed to a video manual, can be.

This for me is an interesting point. My path through to hyperbolic geometry, for instance, is a very personal path. It is not a path that anyone else will walk, and I don’t think there would be any value in writing a textbook that follows my particular path to understanding hyperbolic geometry.

For me, one of the most valuable aspects of a textbook is not the author’s path through the subject. For me, the most valuable aspect of a textbook is to set down a single or set of fundamental principles, a framework or skeleton to provide for the reader, to give them some structure for learning the discipline.

And yes, I’m aware that textbooks are almost never written to be self contained, but rather are written to provide an experienced professional to use to use with a group of beginners or novices or others. But even here, given that experienced professional lead a skeleton or set of principles to use is in itself useful, and is the value that the author brings, rather than developing a handbook or compendium of what’s known about the discipline.

Having reread what I’ve written above, I can see that I’m struggling with some ideas that have been bouncing around inside my skull for a while. They have come out now, as we have reached the end of the teaching semester and the time has come to look back over the semester and reflect on what to keep and what to change come future semesters. I’m sure this is a topic I’ll come back to, especially if I decide to take on the possibility facing me of writing another textbook.