thrashing and attention theft

•1 September 2018 • Leave a Comment

I recently learned the term thrashing as used by computer scientists, as a thing experienced rather than a thing to be given.  Loosely, thrashing describes when a computer becomes debilitated by spending all of its time moving things in and out of memory, rather than doing any processing.

It would be interesting to understand the etymology of this particular use of thrashing and how those that chose, chose thrashing as opposed to other seemingly apposite words such as flailing.  But that investigation is for another day.

For me, this sense of thrashing is a useful term to describe situations far beyond what’s going on inside computers.  It’s also good for describing what sometimes happens inside our heads.  I find myself thrashing from time to time, moving from one project to another without making any real progress, responding to external demands on my time and attention.

And this is where I think thrashing and attention theft are connected.  Attention theft is I think sufficiently self explanatory a term that I won’t try and formulate a precise definition, but the modern world is as rife with attention theft as it is with thrashing scenarios.

One connection between these two notions is the time we lose to attention theft, keeping track of the world via Twitter for instance and constantly pinging to check whether new email has arrived, and how this time lost contributes to the creation of thrashing situations.

I am coming more and more to appreciate having some time to sit and think, to start working through the details of some of the pending projects, and make some progress.

The complicated question is, how.  How to carve out that time that no one else has access to.  How to carve out those spaces where no one else can find us.  This can be particular tricky for those in roles that require them to be available to others, to answer their questions and on occasion make the decision that needs to be made.

And somewhat self referentially, this leads to yet another project, which is the project of being more active in carving out this time for thought and reflection, and battling the forces of thrashing and attention theft.

beware, there be spoilers: Jailbird

•25 August 2018 • Leave a Comment

One of the interesting ideas that Vonnegut introduces in Jailbird, as a passing comment by our narrator Walter Starbuck is the notion of government as a Ponzi scheme.

There is something to this idea, but I’d like to unpick it a bit and see where we find ourselves. We find ourselves at an interesting point in our history, having as we have unbound our monetary systems from extrinsic sources of value. Fiat currencies, underpinned by our faith in government rather than something we can hold, such as gold.

Some long time ago, I speculated about money as a doomsday device, and I think there’s a lot more there to unpick. But looking around, we see governments racking up large debts for future generations to pay.

The solution of course, as we have been told many a time, is to grow the economy, so the debt burden becomes a smaller percentage of the nation’s ability to create wealth, but we are then faced with the issue of our elected officials not adequately curating the nation’s ability to grow.

But this isn’t a Ponzi scheme. We are borrowing from the future to fund our present, and I think this is an issue that’s fundamental to governments of the people, by the people, for the people. Perhaps it’s that we’ve become used to our governments not providing a clear picture of the consequences of our actions and requests, and of us not looking for a clear picture.

I’m writing this as the sun comes up on a beautiful day, and so I don’t want to get too pessimistic, but I’m beginning to wonder. What is the path we should be taking? We cannot get everything we want, because wanting more and more is an asymptotic process, and we seem to have found ourselves in a situation where more and more is never enough.

Perhaps the basic problem is one of time. Perhaps we are setting our time horizons too near to the present, and not considering the consequences of our actions in 100 years time, or 200. Predicting the future is a difficult thing, but I wonder if we can start to take the view that we shouldn’t make our future lives any more difficult than we need to.

So perhaps government is a Ponzi scheme, borrowing more and more from the future to satisfy the demands of the present, with everyone being complicit in the scheme.

beware, there be spoilers: Slapstick, or Lonesome No More

•19 August 2018 • Leave a Comment

When I first started my 2018 project of reading all of Kurt Vonnegut, I will admit I had no idea what to expect. I’d read a bit: Cat’s Cradle, the Sirens of Titan, and Welcome to the Monkey House, all of which have a science fiction flavor to them.

But I hadn’t realized the extent to which Vonnegut framed everything in a science fiction context. But up until this point, that’s what he’s been doing. Like Player Piano, Slapstick is a near future story, with telepathic communication, habitable asteroids, and plagues and the consequences of plagues.

All good stuff. But there was one thing that made an appearance in Slapstick, one idea, that I thought was an idea worthy of far greater exploration than occurred therein, and so I would, as unseemly a thing to do as it is, pick a bone with Mr Vonnegut.

Don’t get me wrong. I love his writing and I’m enjoying my Year of Vonnegut. He has a sense of humor that I will be chasing for the rest of my days. He has a collection of characters that I can only marvel at.

But he does have a habit, and it is something of a habit, of introducing a spectacular idea and not exploring it. In Cat’s Cradle, we have the different crystalline structures of water, one of which is Ice-9, which leads to the cataclysm at the end of the world, but that cataclysm isn’t explored in any real depth. What are the logistical issues, for instance, around getting drinking water? Is skin permeable to Ice-9? And so forth.

And here, in Slapstick, comes the idea that gravity has a time dependence to it. That gravity on Earth is sometimes stronger and sometimes weaker, and that we happened to have been living at a time when gravity had decided (for lack of a better term) to be constant.

The pyramids were built when gravity was weak and workers could just lift the stones, for instance.

But what would human society look like, how would we have developed, what beliefs might we hold, if gravity were sometimes weaker and sometimes stronger. Because I think this would have had a massive impact. We are story telling beings, after all, and we have over the course of our history been good at capturing some significant historical events with our stories, such as flood myths and the flooding of the Black Sea.

We believe that gravity acts independent of time. That it is mass that determines gravity, and essentially nothing more, and this leads me to ponder a clear and difficult to embrace human trait. We have been truly aware of our surroundings for a remarkably short part of the time that the Earth has been around, much less the universe.

Many of our beliefs contains these hypotheses and assumptions, such as gravity being time independent, because that’s all we’ve ever known. Well, that and the fact that the math of the situation works out well.

But what if. What if. And I do expect at least one physicist to write in and tell me why the what if isn’t really, but I would like to believe in the possibility with the same fervor as any academic being unwilling to admit that they’ve been fooled by a good magician.

the things we know and how we know them

•19 August 2018 • Leave a Comment

Years ago now, I went to an internal university course of being a better lecturer and the person presenting, whose name I don’t remember, started with an exercise. List, he said, as fast as you can, the months of the year.

This is something we can all do incredibly quickly, as long as they’re the months we grew up with. (Not like the calendar in an episode of the Simpson’s that contained a thirteenth month.).

Now, he said, with a twinkle in his eye, list the months of the year in alphabetical order. And needless to say, we crashed and burned. Some of us did what we thought was the reasonable, logical thing, namely going through the months time and again, looking for the alphabetical first, then the alphabetical second; getting lost on which one we were looking for since we were trying to hold too much in our heads all at once, thereby running into a different notion from psychology that I love, namely cognitive strain.

But it took us a lot lot longer to generate the alphabetical list. And ever since, I’ve loved this little exercise, because it is an invaluable lesson that we as teachers need to remember. Namely, just because people might know something (for instance the months of the year), they know it in a particular context.

And that context is important. It’s like the months of the year are olives in an olive loaf, and the loaf is the chronological context. (Perhaps a bad analogy, but it’s close to dinner time and I’m getting hungry.). We can’t ignore the context and use the information as freely as we want to. And neither can our students, who won’t even have practiced manipulating the information in the same ways that we have.

It’s an infinitely flexible exercise too, since we can change the list of things and the manipulation of context. A good one is to say the numbers from 1 to 20, alphabetized by their spelling, because here the context is particularly strong.

Why is this exercise fresh in my mind today? Because I start teaching my graph theory class in a month (yikes) and I’m starting my preparations, and I’ve been teaching the class for a few years now.

I can sense how my own understanding of some of the topics has changed from when I first taught the class, and I need to be mindful that I don’t make assumptions about how my students will be able to use the facts we will be working through, since they’ll be seeing for the first time things that I’ve have seen multiple times and will have worked through multiple times.

We’ll also have new students in the University of Southampton Aikido Club, and I’ll need to maintain the same awareness with them as with my graph theory students. And there, the issue will be a stronger issue for me. I’ve been doing aikido for 21 years just about, and so my internal context and internal language for my aikido is deep at this point.

And what makes this an especially interesting challenge and imposes a duty on me as an instructor, is that the language of aikido is a language of movement, as opposed to the logical definitional language of mathematics. Translating the lessons from one type of teaching to the other is an interesting challenge, and one that I enjoy.

beware, there be spoilers: Breakfast of Champions

•5 August 2018 • Leave a Comment

And the year of Vonnegut continues, and entertainingly so.  As he did with his other books, Vonnegut continues to weave familiar characters from earlier books into the book under consideration, with Eliot Rosewater having a minor role.  But herein one of the main characters is our old favourite, Kilgore Trout.

But what I found most interesting was the role of the narrator, the point of view character.  Partway through my reading, I wrote myself a note on the inside cover (and yes, I am one of those who makes notes, relevant to the reading or just random thoughts and ideas, in what I’m reading, as long as the copy is mine).

I asked myself, who is the narrator, because Vonnegut had begun to hint that the narrator stood a bit apart from the other characters.  This came through in part because of how the narrator was reflecting on the events affecting the characters.

And indeed he did.  In Breakfast of Champions, the narrator is the author of the book, and who particularly towards the end takes an active role in the lives of the characters, sometimes while he’s face to face with them.  He shapes their actions.  He introduces things to distract the characters.  But he’s not messing with them for the sake just of messing with them.  Though I’ll admit it’s not entirely clear to me the message the author/character was working to get through to me the reader at the end.

And so, I start to think, and my thoughts go in many different directions.  Might I ever use this particular narrative device, of having the narrator  be the author of the book, who then finds himself or introduces himself into the action of the story.  While I enjoyed reading the book, I think I would find it a hard device to use myself, and I can also see that after a time, reading several different books with the same device might become a bit tiresome, depending on how it’s handled.

And when was such a device first used?  I’m sure there’s a scholarly tome out there somewhere, which traces the history of the author being a character in their own work, and it would be interesting to know.  (And so yes, if you happen to know of such a tome, please let me know.)

There are many ways to tell a story, and this is something that in my own writing I know I can get hung up on.  I set up a scenario, I set the characters in motion, and then I think, ooo but what if I did this, what if I did that, what if they knew this extra thing, what if they didn’t know this important thing, et cetera.  And I find my stories bifurcating again and again, creating a tree of possible stories and I don’t have the capacity to explore all of them.

And so the discipline has to be, explore the ones you can explore and get the words on paper.  And that is my plan for the rest of the afternoon.

beware, there be spoilers: Slaughterhouse 5

•4 August 2018 • Leave a Comment

This might be Vonnegut’s most famous novel, the story of Billy Pilgrim.  Billy, like Vonnegut himself was, is an American soldier in World War 2 who survives the fire bombing of Dresden.

And it contains a lot more.  Billy starts traveling through time, bouncing back and forth to different points in his own life, his own time stream.  The aliens from Tralfamadore make an appearance.

And we start encountering other characters that we’d already met in earlier novels, and it is this aspect of Vonnegut’s art that I want to talk about.  We encounter Rumfoord, who we met earlier in The Sirens of Titan.  We spend more time with Kilgore Trout, the underappreciated science fiction writer whose work we’d read about in other novels.

And there are others – this isn’t intended to be an academic treatise and so I don’t feel the need to give a complete list.

I’m sure that someone has gone through and done a detailed analysis of which characters appear or are mentioned in more than one of Vonnegut’s stories and novels, and has done the analysis of the extent to which Vonnegut’s world is internally consistent.

I should say that I don’t really care how internally consistent his world is.  I’m curious, but we have gotten used to long form stories set in internally inconsistent worlds, the Simpsons being a famous example.

I like Kilgore Trout’s ideas and titles, and it appears that I’m not the only one.  A quick run to amazon.co.uk reveals that Philip Jose Farmer wrote a novel under the pseudonym Kilgore Trout back in the 1970s, and there are others making (less appropriate) use of the name more recently.

I like these connections that Vonnegut makes between his novels through the characters, and I’m curious to see the extent to which he continues this as I continue on in my reading.

beware, there be spoilers: God Bless You, Mr Rosewater

•15 July 2018 • Leave a Comment

I had an interesting and mildly revelatory experience while reading this bit of Vonnegut.  And looking around at the news and the world around me, it’s not an experience that’s unique to me, and it’s an experience that’s becoming more common.  It also ties into some of the other things I’m thinking about, and that I’ve written about here from time to time.

Vonnegut has a recurring theme, sometimes directly expressed and other times less so, that the world would be a better place if only people were nicer to each other.  This is view of the world taken by Eliot Rosewater.  At first glance, it’s perhaps a naive idea but I would like to try and explain a bit why I don’t think it’s naive at all.

I remember an old science fiction story, title and author long forgotten, about first contact with an alien race and they take us into their houses.  Their children treat us like toys or pets, treating us not particularly well, until there comes a point when the human protagonist has the revelation that signals they are ready to be educated, alongside the alien children.

This is a story that’s stayed with me and comes to mind every time I wonder, why do people behave the way we do?  And I think that ultimately, it’s because we have decided to behave the way we behave.  Our tolerance of the hoarding of great wealth while our fellow human beings, independent of their nationality or religion, suffer want or war.

More than once, I’ve read a story, the basic principle of which is that we as humans are not yet mature enough to join the community of worlds, because we do not treat each other well.  We do not yet treat each other as we ourselves would like to be treated.  And this principle is also core to many of the major religions of the world.

We have reached the point in our development that we have turned the machinery of science on ourselves, and we are beginning to understand how we as humans think.  And how very different the way we actually think is, from the way that our internal view fools us into thinking how we think.

And so where to take this experience?  I’m not entirely sure.  This battle, to persuade people to behave well to one another, is one that we’ve been having with ourselves for millenia.  What’s changed is that we now have science on our side, should we choose to use it.

However, there is another riptide that we need to swim against, which is that actively using the science we have to understand ourselves is also drifting out of favor among many.  We carry beliefs about ourselves as humans and about the world, that are not based in science.

I believe strongly in the power of science to provide us with an explanation of how the world works, and that we need to make use of the understanding of ourselves and how we work that comes from science.  I also believe strongly in the power of the stories we tell each other, and have told each other since we were huddled together around a weak flickering fire against the beasts that prowled in the night.