the current me and the younger me

•15 February 2021 • Leave a Comment

Perhaps because of the circumstances and difficulties of the past year, I find myself from time to time thinking about the younger me. There are some very immediate reasons. Working with students, I can’t help but be reminded of my own student days, and in particular working through for the first time bits of math then encountered for the first time. There are other reasons as well; as part of the poetic science project, we’ve been asked to explore our own professional foundation myth, and create a poem from it.

I don’t remember starting aikido. Or rather, I remember that I started aikido (more than twenty years) and I have memories, flashes from those early days like snapshots, but I don’t remember the struggle of learning the mechanics of ikkyo for the first time, or kote gaeshi. My struggles these days are very different, working on refinements rather than basic mechanics.

It’s interesting trying to put myself, albeit figuratively, back into the skin of the younger me. Part of this I think is the old phenomenon is distance, the distance between teacher and student that I’ve written about elsewhere in these pages. The teacher continues to develop and deepen their understanding, whereas the new student always arrives fresh, ignorant for lack of a better term, perhaps knowing only the basics, if that. Thus, distance.

Here, though, that distance is between the current me and the younger me. The current me has continued to develop, to deepen my understanding, and this clouds the memory of the younger me. There are some things I’ve just been thinking about for a long time now. One thing that requires work is to find and appreciate the joy we feel at the new, at encountering for the first time. But it’s work that I’m willing to put in, that I like to put in.

The world has also changed. My much younger self didn’t have the Internet, for instance, and the Internet has wreaked some fundamental changes on how we live, how we communicate, how we access the information and knowledge gathered over the centuries by humanity. Different skills are required to navigate this current world.

And so, the old question. There is a trope in science fiction, going back in time and inhabiting our younger skin, reliving our lives, correcting our mistakes and taking different paths. This comes I suppose from our belief, our fear, that our younger selves would be somehow disappointed in our current self. Disappointed perhaps that we haven’t achieved all that we dreamed. Disappointed perhaps that we haven’t lived all of the adventures we planned. And as tempted as I am to hope that my younger self would look at me and be content, I’m also struck by how there’s no way of knowing. The distance is too great, the river of time too fast and too deep, And all we can do is to move forward from where we stand at the moment.

stories of Zen: a parable

•6 February 2021 • Leave a Comment

Number 18 of the 101 Zen stories that form the first part of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps, is a parable reputably due to the Buddha himself.

A monk running from a tiger climbs part way down a cliff. Below him, at the base of the cliff, is another tiger, looking up at him with hunger. Two mice start chewing the vine. The monk sees a wild strawberry growing nearby; he plucks it and eats it, savouring its sweetness.

People talk of mindfulness, of living in the moment, and this parable for me is very much a parable about the moment. The monk cannot climb up the cliff, because one tiger; cannot climb down, because of the other tiger; and cannot remain where he is, because of the mice. I’m ignoring for the moment whether tigers and mice would or wouldn’t behave this way, though this does fall into my wheelhouse of overthinking.

So. Watching the news, it’s easy to put names and faces to the tigers that are stalking me and the mice that are chewing my vine. But it’s harder, some days, to clearly identify my wild strawberry (or perhaps strawberries).

Reading is a strawberry; I love immersing myself in a book or a collection of stories, a biography or some popular science, exploring worlds existing and only imagined. But – and here comes the overthinking again – is exploring other worlds a sufficiently mindful activity? I think yes – replacing the tang of the strawberry with the sight of a sunset composed of streaks of red and orange.

Aikido is a strawberry. At present, we are only able to hold classes via Zoom, working on movement but not throwing each other or being thrown. But this regular focus on movement is an important part of my week.

But I also wonder. What are other readings of this parable, beyond this obvious one. I ask this, because I like to look for the non-obvious meanings, though looking for them is far far easier than finding them. Perhaps I need a map. Perhaps I need to learn how to take a left turn into an additional dimension. Or perhaps I’m looking for something that might not be there.

But as things stand, I have some strawberries. I see the green shoots and nascent beads of strawberries just sprouting. And as much as I can, I will try to give the tigers and mice no more attention than they deserve.

craft and the daily haiku

•24 January 2021 • 1 Comment

Roughly a thousand days ago, and I say roughly because I don’t remember the day I first started, I have been tweeting out a haiku every day (albeit with a very few missed days here and there). If you check out the hash tags #dailyhaiku and #haiku you can find these and haiku by other authors as well; there is a remarkably robust and active haiku community on Twitter.

Haiku is a structured short Japanese poetic form; in its English incarnation, it consists of seventeen syllables, in lines of five, seven, five in that order. I don’t remember why I started ; I suspect it was a bit of whimsy. Why I’ve continued is probably due to some combination of momentum and an appreciation of craft.

What do I mean here by craft? Some many years ago, I read The Unknown Craftsman by Yanagi Soetsu. (Unfortunately, I don’t remember the translator of the edition I read.) I have a copy of Yanagi’s book on my shelves of books to read again (shelves which are locked in eternal combat with the shelves of books as yet unread and the shelves of books unwilling to resign themselves to never being read) and I know that I need to re-read it, but one point that I took from my reading is that craft arises from reflective repetition.

By reflective repetition, I mean doing a task over and over again, whether it be pulling together seventeen syllables with some developing understanding or whether it be shaping clay to be fired into mugs or whether it be, drifting somewhat far afield, executing a proper aikido technique among many repetitions.

When I look over the things where I spend my time, I can see aspects of this reflective repetition in many places. Whether it be herding words into a haiku each morning, or the swing of a bokken or jo, I see that this reflective repetition occasionally creates magic. A haiku perhaps that sings as opposed to being a mere collection of syllables, or one particular shiho nage where uke’s eyebrows rise in surprise.

But there is something beyond this, because there are other areas where if I am honest, I can see the dark side of this quest for the few perfect moments among reflective repetition. This I think is something that bedevils my writing. I don’t want to find the one great paragraph, the one great story among all the words I write, and I stand at the edge of the abyss of recognizing that there is no other path.

I am not yet at the point of being able to bring forth perfection from the void in which ideas perambulate like ghosts. And perhaps I will never get there, but I can get to the point of putting down the words, revising the words, and creating something good that spark interest and a (deliberate) laugh from the reader. And that is the lesson to take to heart.

working through the backblog

•27 December 2020 • Leave a Comment

As is tradition at the end of one (Gregorian) year and looking forward into the next, I’ve been considering my accumulated lists, the projects underway but as yet uncompleted and projects waiting to be considered. I’ve written about the various projects, like the annual reading project and indeed projects in general.

Aikido is an ongoing project, and one that’s been difficult over the course of 2020, given the restrictions on physical contact and distance, and the challenge there has been maintaining contact with aikido without being able to maintain much in the way of contact with other aikidoka. We’ve done as well as we could, I think, with massive thanks for the others in the club, and I think it’s reasonable to say that my jo and bokken work is a bit better.

One of the habits I’ve acquired over time, perhaps related to daily journaling, is keeping track of the small ideas that pass through the brain over the course of a day, set off perhaps by something I’ve read or a conversation, or something whispered into my ear by a passing imp. And some of those ideas, which I track on their own page, are those ideas that make up what I sometimes refer to as the backblog.

I had lost track of just how long I’ve been posting these (hopefully) entertaining bits of randomness, or quite how many I’d composed over that time. Looking back over them, and I (almost ironically) can’t remember whether I’ve written about this before, there are themes that recur over time, themes that I started but didn’t then continue. And so one possible project, should I find myself (ha ha) lacking a project, would be to go back and work through both of the back blogs, the blogs not yet written but also the themes begun but not yet completed.

I can also see that I’ve become inconsistent in terms of the timing of the blog, and so looking ahead to the year to come, I don’t want to overpromise. Working through the whole of the back blog would be, I think, an overpromise, given that we don’t yet know for certain what shape 2021 will take, but I can try and be more consistent in my timings, with an aim towards writing on some topic once per week.

So why am I even writing this? In part, I think, to set the stage for the year to come, as part of the process of Gregorian reflection. In part, because I think that setting down my plans for the year has an almost talismanic power to convert words and intentions into actuality. And on that point, we will just need to see what the year to come will bring.

the reading project for 2021 (and perhaps 2022)

•7 December 2020 • 1 Comment

For the past few years, I have set myself a reading project. The first was The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, translated by Sir Richard Burton, largely, solely perhaps for the reason that it had been sitting on my shelf for years, asking me to spend some time with it. The second was the complete works, novels and short stories, of Kurt Vonnegut. Both of these I completed, though Vonnegut took a bit longer than a year.

The third, a project that in retrospect was far too vast in its scope, was to read humanity from the beginning. I have spent the past couple of years wandering through ancient Sumer, and I will spend more years there still. Sumer is a fascinating place, and one that’s captured me.

But I will never read all of Sumer, and so the project of reading humanity from the beginning is a project that made sense only because I didn’t understand how many of our early stories have been travelled through time to us, even knowing that the recorded stories are but a small part of the stories that were told, in front of hearths and in public fora.

And so I need a new reading project, one that I can actually complete, if not in one year then in two.

The (moderately) recent Time Magazine list of the best 100 Fantasy Novels recently came to my attention. Two things struck me. One was how few of its books I’d read. The other is how many of its authors I recognized. And so this becomes the project. A century of novels in a single year is a lot, two a week, and that might well be beyond what I can do, particularly given that some of them are properly long. Even giving myself two years, and removing those I’ve already read, will be a stretch, but let’s give it a shot.

One of the things that Vonnegut taught me during our year (and a half) together is that it can be difficult to focus attention on one author, one voice, however entertaining and captivating that voice might be. Two thirds of the way in, there comes the desire for a bit of variety, a voice that’s a bit different. This was less of an issue with Burton and his Nights, a collection of tales brought together by the whim of this old Victorian.

Let the journey begin.

a meditation on Hofstadter’s Law

•6 December 2020 • Leave a Comment

In Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a book that is on my list of books to reread, Douglas Hofstadter set forth what has since become known as Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

There are many reasons that I ponder Hofstadter’s Law, or as I (perhaps inappropriately) prefer to refer to it, Hofstadter’s Principle. One very tangential reason is the context in which I first encountered it, through my reading of Hofstadter’s book. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the perspective bending art of Escher, and in fact my area of mathematical research is reflected in some of his works such as Angels and Devils. Perhaps there is scope for exploring this internal connection in some future post.

A second and much less indirect reason is the recursive, self referential nature of the Principle. As we work through the details of a situation or a task, we sometimes find ourselves enmeshed in the details contained within the details, the grit that can on occasion create the grinding friction that emerges as we work to refine our approach to the details. I spend a part of each day pondering grit and its consequences, and the truth of the Principle makes itself felt every day.

But perhaps the main reason is the extent to which modifications and variations of the Principle also makes themselves known and felt. It’s harder than you expect, even when you take into account the Principle. It always requires more attention to detail than you expect, even when you take into account the Principle.

In aikido, part of what we are working to do is to retrain the ways our bodies react when we’re attacked, when we’re held. We react by instinct blazingly quickly some times, and so yes, this retraining takes longer than we expect when we first start (or at least longer than I naively expected when I started), even when I began to appreciate the application here of the Principle.

When teaching, we spend a significant chunk of our preparation time cutting paths through the tangle of material that constitute the jungle of a discipline, grown tall and green through the work of scholars over decades or centuries. We then act as guides for the neophyte students encountering the jungle for a first time, and one of several things we need to keep in mind as teachers is that for our students, the Principle applies and we need to give them the time and support to come to their own understanding of the material we are presenting to them.

So for me, Hofstadter’s Principle and its variants form some of the bedrock of how I encounter the world. I work to minimize its impact but I recognize it is always there, watching from the shadows. Waiting, like one of our house panthers, for its moment to strike.

the balance of one thing against another

•29 November 2020 • Leave a Comment

Something occurred to me this week that I’d like to spend some time exploring. It hit me during a short segment on CNN about Encyclopaedia Britannica, of all things. But then it’s interesting to follow these chains of memory sometimes.

I can remember visits to my grandparents’ house when I was young, and leafing through the 1912 edition of the Britannica that lived in a trunk in the attic. I loved the weight of the volumes in my hands and the feel of the pages. And when we were cleaning out the attic some years later, we found the original wooden crate in which it had been shipped, and we could see the extent to which the volumes had expanded over time and would no longer fit in that original container.

But the recent thought was a thought in a different direction. The Britannica is still for me, to a lesser extent than it used to be, a symbol of the totality of human knowledge. I’m sure that even the writers of the Britannica would probably acknowledge that they provided a summary, even in that 1912 edition, but holding those volumes gave me the illusion of being able to develop an understanding.

Developing that understanding has become more difficult over time, and becomes more difficult day by day. The speed at which we as humans are producing knowledge is fearsome. I subscribe to a daily arxiv.org update on the submissions in some areas of mathematics, and even that very limited picture is more than I can absorb, and I’ve chosen the areas I’m interested in.

And this brings me to the core of this thought. Even in very small patches in the overall space of the exploration of things known and not yet known, it is becoming increasing difficult to keep an eye on and understanding of what is known. On the one hand, this is very exciting, because the more hands, the merrier in terms of developing our understanding.

But on the other hand, and I am extrapolating from my personal experience here, we explore these areas because we want to understand, and so there can be a joyous frustration in trying to keep up with everyone else on the same quest.

So that is the balance that sparked this whole scree. The balance I’m thinking of here is the balance of breadth versus depth. We can focus our attention on a very very small patch, thereby denying breadth, and work in increasing the depth of our understanding. Or we can focus our attention on larger patches, with the consequent necessity of mining this patch to a lesser depth, if only because we are finite creatures and we have only a finite amount of time and effort that we can put into this work.

And we can leave this first part of what will undoubtedly be a discussion of several parts, by remembering VGER from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, naively tasked with understanding everything there was to understand, and then not knowing what to do once it had accomplished this mission. Fiction perhaps can bridge this divide between breadth and depth, but it seems to me to be beyond what we can do at present.

on projects

•23 November 2020 • 1 Comment

I have many projects. Over the life of this blog, I’ve explored a number of different aspects of my engagement with my projects. What this number is, I’m not entirely sure, but it’s a reasonably large number. Even for this Project Blog, I have a page in the journal where I collect ideas for possible future blogs.

I’m not precisely sure why tonight has become the night of project contemplation. Perhaps it’s the fire in the corner of the room, orange flames dancing on logs that are slowly disappearing. Perhaps it’s a bit of wishful thinking, looking towards the end of the year which is still some weeks away. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of my old friend and colleague, procrastination.

I’ve not devoted as much time as I would like to my mathematics recently, but in part that’s because the past few weeks have been devoted to teaching, and the teaching has (I think) been going pretty well. But come the new year, there should be more time for the quiet contemplation (that word again) of the warped geometric spaces I explore when I have the time.

A few years ago, almost four I think, I set myself a reading project – to read Sir Richard Burton’s The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night. It took a year, some Nights every day, and it sparked some interesting ruminations. The next year, I set myself another reading project and I read the complete Vonnegut.

Last year, I set a more ambitious target – read humanity from the beginning. I am still wandering through the streets and wild places of ancient Sumer, and I will be wandering there for some time yet, because there is much to see and much to read. I have learned two lessons from this. One is that ancient Sumer is a fascinating place, worth the time spent there. The other is, do the research before setting a reading project. And so while Sumer persists, I will spend the next month looking around for the 2021 reading project.

I haven’t mentioned writing projects, but there are many. Stories mostly written and (dare I say the words) the novel. This is where Procrastination has made its home.

The past months have not been helpful months for my relationship with my projects. But there is now some light, albeit the tunnel remains. I can see glimpses of space, and I can see the possibility of projects being brought to an end. And so, what can we say but, the work continues.

stories of Zen: the muddy road

•12 November 2020 • Leave a Comment

The past few years, and 2020 in particular, have been extremely hard on my personal practice of Zen. I am very much an amateur, doing some reading and some solo practice, and needless to say, recent events have proven to be very distracting.

One of my personal sourcebooks is Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, a Collection of Zen and pre-Zen Writings, brought together by Paul Reps. One of my favorite stories is 14. Muddy Road. Two monks, Tanzan and Ekido in this version, are travelling after a heavy rain. They come across a swollen stream and a washed out bridge, and a young woman unable to cross. Tanzan, the older of the two, carries the woman across the stream and sets her down, and he and Ekido continue on their way. After some time, Ekido upbraids his older companion; they are monks, and they shouldn’t go near women. Tanzan then says, I’ve already set her down; why are you still carrying her.

I think about this story a lot. My head constantly buzzes with things other than what I am attempting to focus on at the moment, but more than that, I find it difficult to set things down and walk away from them.

The world at the moment is a swirling maelstrom of complications and distractions, of events far beyond my control to influence. Amidst all of the complications, it is hard sometimes to see clearly, what are the things to set on the side of the road and what are the things worth carrying. What are the things that need to be carried.

A small, non-political aspect of this is something I’ve written about before, namely the List of Things To Do. Like most others, I have my list of projects, some with deadlines and some without. I have set some (few) projects down on the side of the road and walked away, but I have difficulty even here not pausing and looking behind me, wondering what if I were to go back and give them one more chance.

I recognize that this is drifting away from the core of the story, and there are analogies that I am tempted to stretch and push beyond their capacity to maintain their internal cohesion. But I do sometimes think of Ekido as the angel on one shoulder, telling me what I should do, and then I think of the angel on the other shoulder, whispering that those things left on the side of the road still deserve my attention, and it is a difficult voice to still.

But still it I must. Each day brings new opportunities, new projects, new ideas and new possibilities, and yes new deadlines. However long I’ve carried them, there are things to be set down and left to their own devices, so that the weight of all of them doesn’t sink me into the road.

windows into the past

•25 October 2020 • Leave a Comment

Mom has been doing some cleaning over the past few years, and from time to time she sends me pieces of my past that she’s come across. Most of these relate to high school or university days (for instance, multiple copies of my university graduate programme, in a box on a shelf), but occasional she finds something properly interesting.

Over the weekend, she sent through a report written at the end of my second grade year, in the summer of 1972. I won’t go into the details, and it has been interesting to reflect on some of the points raised therein, but rather than these specific details, I’d like to spend some time perambulating around the fact of having such a window.

These occasional reports, this recent one and others previous, as close as I will ever come to having a conversation with the young Jimmy, on the cusp of 8 years of age, a time long enough ago that my memories resemble snapshots of moments more than moving pictures. And for those incidents that are formative if only because they’re the moments and memories that persist, we have to accept the possibility that decades of reviewing those memories have corrupted the tape.

I think about this whenever I read history. I’ve recently finished The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark, a detailed account of the discussions and deliberations that took place across Europe in the few years leading up to the beginning of World War I in 1914. I enjoyed the book and the exquisite level of detail, but even here we have only what was written down and what survived, and we can only speculate on the conversations of which we have no record.

The farther back we go into our collective human history, the more pervasive an issue this becomes. The written record becomes thinner as we go back through the decades and centuries and millenia. And it’s not just that the record becomes thinner; it’s that what is written becomes more focused on particular areas of our past lives. This might be why we appreciate the individual voices from the past that sometimes arise, in documentaries for instance.

It’s this I think that lead to the reading project I set myself a couple of years ago, to read human writings from the beginning. I am still wandering through the streets of ancient Sumer. I listen to stories whose context I don’t yet understand. I wonder about the events and beliefs that sit behind these stories. And I ache to know what stories we told to each other and our cousins, sitting around fires tens of millenia ago, and what echoes of those stories still inhabit our stories today.

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.

the rise of the machine world 2, with teaching

•26 April 2020 • Leave a Comment

Each year, I realize that little bit more how much I love teaching. I realize how much I enjoy taking a small piece of the mathematical universe, digesting it and showing my students all of the strange and wonderful flowers I have found growing along the sides of our path. I am reminded of how much I enjoy the engagement with students, inculcating in them in the joy of mathematical exploration.

What does this have to do with the machine world? Through one lens, it can be viewed as a manifestation of an old story of Issac Asimov, The Feeling of Power. These days, a retelling might result in a cautionary tale a la Skynet and the Terminator, or Colossus, of outsourcing aspects of how we understand the world, and gifting the machine world with dominance. When it was written, though, while it was a cautionary tale, it was a hopeful tale, with humanity slowly, painfully, discovering its gifts.

And what does all of this have to do with my teaching? One of the readings I give my students is The Feeling of Power, because I like to be reminded each year and I think it’s a story worth everyone reading. We make us of our colleagues in the machine world, to undertake calculations beyond for reasons of practicality our ability to do ourselves. But I make use of the machine world with the understanding that we might get out answers to our questions, but we still need to provide for ourselves the reasons why those answers are actual correct answers to our questions.

Mathematics has for some time been an experimental science, wherein we can use the machine world to conduct our experiments, under our direction. We take the outputs from these calculators experiments and we can then formulate conjectures about the behaviour in situations far beyond our ability to calculate, and we then try to construct the arguments that allow us to pierce the veil of the logistically practical and make statements in truth about the infinite.

And this is what I work to share. The deep intellectual joy we can find in our quest, in our exploration of the infinitude of possibility. The harnessing of the power of the machine world to assist us in our quest. The use of language to provide short cuts along the path of understanding, and the exploration of the subtleties of that use of language.

And now, I go to write the next lecture, the next episode for my students, taking them a bit further along the path.

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.

thinking about teaching and learning

•9 January 2021 • 2 Comments

As part of my plan for the year, I’ve gone back to the back blog topic list and to things written in earlier blog days, and there is one topic that needs much deeper exploration. This is the basic question, how do people learn.

One obvious reason that this question is at the front of my mind is the change we as educators have had to make to our approach to teaching in our current world. For me, this applies to my mathematics teaching; we are fast approaching the end of our semester here and I find myself starting the annual process of reflection on how things have gone, thinking through the changes I might make next year.

But it also applies to my aikido teaching. I’ve spent part of today preparing the coaching course I’m teaching tomorrow, and part of that process of preparation includes some theory around different aspects of how people learn.

This topic, how people learn, is one of the topics I touched on in earlier days of this blog, but one that I (still) haven’t had time to explore deeply. I have acquired some material over time, and the task that lies before me is to make the time to start working through them.

There are some structural questions, for lack of a better term, that underpin what might be described as a quest. Are there, for instance, different types of learners. I suspect that the answer to this question is lurking in the undergrowth of the extant literature, though I suspect that ultimately it will come down to human beings being learning machines, and the different aspects of this.

As I sit here, my fingers on the keys, I can track some of the ideas that are going through my mind. For instance, a phrase we have been using a lot recently is blended learning, and what my recent revelation is, is that we cannot understand what we mean by blended learning until we understand learning.

A standard aspect of discussions around blended learning is that they involve aspects of delivery, rather than aspects of learning. Synchronous delivery, with the interaction we can cultivate from our students, and asynchronous delivery, be that through recorded sessions or prepared notes, and a large et cetera as well. So perhaps we should talk about blended delivery, rather than blended learning. There is as aspect to explore here is what is required for learning.

And why are we using the word ‘blended’ as though it were something different. If we think about our original way of learning, going back to millenia before we started making marks in clay and on paper, we would be sitting around a fire, telling stories, trying to make sense of the world around us. So we could view a book as old school blended learning – or old school blended delivery – and since there’s always a next step, the next step is to understand the consequences of this particular line of thinking.

I see the vastness of this landscape, even with the mountains in the distance and fog in the valleys that hides much of what is there to explore. There is a trail. Backpack, walking stick, and let’s see where the trail leads.