the myth of getting even

•15 April 2019 • Leave a Comment

This is not a tale of revenge, nor it is the tale of a quest for number and arithmetic. Rather, it is an explication of the obvious. 

There will never be enough time. 

Getting even, catching up, these are but myths, stories we tell ourselves. I think I’ve written before about the danger inherent in going through all of the lists and making the one Great List That Lists Them All, and then becoming paralyzed by the volume of things to be done.

Nonetheless, I do it from time to time, and I’ll admit that it’s possible to form the habit of making and remaking lists, and lose sight of the fact that the lists are not an end in themselves. The lists are but a tool for doing, but making the list and checking it again and again is sometimes easier than the doing, as much as it can feel like doing.

So how to fight this project volume paralysis. I could go find a book and read it, either a book related to the topic at hand or not, and I do both quite a lot too. But as much as I enjoy and value reading, I do have to admit that reading in itself doesn’t take projects forward.

The tasks I set myself, the tasks others set for me with or without my explicit consent, the tasks that arise from the day job and hobbies, there will never be enough time to do them all. To finish the list. And I’m glad about that.

Yes, there are things that have been on the list for too long and that require some immediate attention. Yes, there are things that perhaps should be taken off the list, set on the side of the road and walked away from, though I do find that very difficult to do.

But I like the unavoidable fact that there will always be something more to work on. Ideas beget ideas, but it also takes time and effort to go from idea to finished product, be it a story idea or a math idea, or even the idea for a blog post. And yes, work lists have a different flavor to them, subject as they are to other people’s time constraints.

The quest for immortality is a common trope in science fiction, going back to the Fountain of Youth and before. But immortality wouldn’t help here. I suspect that if there are immortals out there in the wider universe, their lists will be long long long indeed, and this is a conversation they would also have had more than once.

And so now, I go boldly forth into the day, seeing what I can do on the list, advancing if not finishing, and I wish you all the best with your list as well.


coffee and the interconnectedness of things

•31 March 2019 • 1 Comment

Like many other people, I enjoy a cup of coffee (or several) in the morning.  And like many other people, the people around me are happy that I have access to coffee in the mornings.  But it is this easy access to coffee, alongside current events, that got me thinking.

Coffee reminds me of the interconnectedness of our world.  I live in a country that doesn’t, and indeed climatically can’t, support the growing of coffee.  (At least, not yet, but that’s a different conversation entirely.)

So for us to have access to coffee, particularly in the quantities to which some of us have become accustomed, we require the existence and maintenance of a significant, bordering on vast, physical and financial infrastructure that allows coffee to be grown somewhere, processed perhaps somewhere else, transported and ultimately sold in my local grocery store or coffee shop.

And this is true for so many things.  Take almost any product and substitute it for the word ‘coffee’ in the paragraph above and the paragraph remains true.

None of this is news.  Indeed, none of this has been news for centuries.  The extent to which global trade has broadened the range of products and opportunities available to each of us is clear just looking at the labels indicating country of origin.

What hit home for me this morning though is the extent to which I’ve come to take this global availability unreflectively for granted.  Though it isn’t always phrased in these terms, this is a point that apocalyptic fiction makes regularly.  When the zombie army washes over the land in World War Z, for instance, we see the occasional moments of life before global trade, when there’s no more coffee to be had.

It’s possible to view this global interdependence as a weakness, but I don’t see it that way.  Rather, I see it as a reminder of another basic theme in science fiction, the essential unity of humanity.

In our current world, there are differences between nations, between philosophies, and these differences sometimes result in wars and sometimes result in catastrophic inaction.  But these differences are our creation, and we should be able to resolve them and move forwards as the single family of humanity that we in fact are.

And this in turn leads to another theme in science fiction, though admittedly a less common theme, which revolves around the how behind this moving forward.  What might it take to create such a common direction of action.  What indeed.

infrastructure, in all its glory

•24 March 2019 • Leave a Comment

Infrastructure is under appreciated, a point that John Oliver makes exceptionally well. The physical infrastructure of electricity and water, sewage and now the internet, these keep modern civilization functioning.

Infrastructure requires constant maintenance, boring but necessary work to make sure that roads stay passable, that dams are strong enough to hold back the weight of the lakes behind them.

I learned an interesting fact some time ago, that a significant percentage (perhaps up to a quarter or so) of the traffic on the internet is just the internet keeping track of itself, so that emails get to their intended destinations and we can continue to stream old episodes of the Sopranos.

There is administrative infrastructure as well, and this is the infrastructure I’m more familiar with. Policies and regulations, policies and forms, I spend what seems some days to be a disproportionate amount of time working through these, making sure they’re doing what we need them to be doing.

I find infrastructure fascinating, I have to admit. I like working through the details of academic administrative infrastructure.

And then we come to the next question: what is the ideal shape of the infrastructure we are trying to build? For society as a whole, the shape of infrastructure will be of critical importance going forward, as will be the process of going from our current infrastructure to the infrastructure we will need in the future.

The same holds true of the administrative infrastructure we use to govern ourselves.

So. We have a meeting tomorrow, where we’ll continue to work through the details of how we should better govern ourselves, because like in all other things, there is nothing we do so well, that we cannot improve.

deep time and the shape of things to come

•17 March 2019 • Leave a Comment

I find myself thinking about time a lot these days.  I think a lot about what we might call shallow time, the day to day, week to week time that many of us use to order our lives.  So for instance, most days I will look at my calendar for the day to follow and see what awaits me.  I think about what I want to do versus what I have committed myself to do, and I try and reconcile those two things.

From this shallow time perspective, some days are harder than others, because some days, I have committed more of my time than I have on other days.  And such is the way of the world.

But I don’t want to spend any more time talking about shallow time here.  Discussions of shallow time get into principles of time management and other things that, while useful, are not where I would like to focus.

Rather, I have a different question in mind.  A wider question.  A deeper question, as hinted at in the title.  When we look out at the world, what do we see when we look at things from the perspective of deep time.

And this, I think, is an even harder thing to do, but it is a necessary thing to do in the world of today.  So what do I mean by deep time.  I don’t mean anything particularly deep, if you’ll forgive the pun.

The science fiction fan in me might say, deep time is what comes from considering the world from the point of view of an immortal living amongst us.

The university middle manager, which is where I first started diving into this question in some of its details, might say, deep time is asking the question, where will my university, and the university sector in general, and perhaps education in general, be 100 years from now, and how does that affect what we do now.

We are actually constantly being bombarded by this question, and I think that our reaction to this bombardment is one reason why we don’t think about it often enough.

Consider climate change.  The way we live today is fundamentally changing our world.  We read that in 50 year or 100 years, sea levels will have risen, and I believe that we don’t know how to process this information.  We don’t often ask, what does this mean specifically for my children and their children and their children, but perhaps this is the only reasonable perspective place to have this discussion.

So how do we change how we as people view events and processes that last far longer than a single human lifetime, much less longer than a standard human attention span.

I think the only reasonable answer comes down to education and to being willing to develop an understand of the difference between me as I am and me as I want to be and me as I see myself.  And this gets back to an earlier point, about the shape of universities in the world to come.  I think this has to become a fundamental part of our mission.

Looking back on what I’ve just written, I’m not sure the answer I’ve given matches the question I’ve asked.  But I do think it’s the best answer I can give, at least at present.  Unless of course the nefarious head of a transnational SPECTRE-like organization reads this and decides to take the organization in a different direction, but I think the chances of that are slim.

water has no form

•24 February 2019 • Leave a Comment

It was Sun Tzu in the Art of War who said: as water has no constant form, there are in war no constant conditions.  I know that I’m not the first to make this point, but interestingly, I think that with the slight sideways step from questions of war to questions of teaching and management, Sun Tzu has distilled a point that has been dancing at the edge of my mind for some time.

Being in what is effectively, essentially university middle management as an associate dean, I spend a fair bit of time thinking about questions of management, particularly management in academic contexts.  Part of this thinking involves motivation and leadership and how to direct the efforts of my colleagues in particular directions, and this was in fact a question I was asked at a session I delivered last week on engaging with an audience.

This is in fact is a critical part of teaching.  I have a clear view of where I wish the students in my class, in terms of them understanding the specifics of what I’m teaching them, the definitions and theorems and lemmas, as well as the underlying principles that form the meshwork holding everything together.

The reason that teaching falls under this quote of Sun Tzu is that each cohort develops its own different personality, and each student in the class also has their own particularities of how best they learn, of how best they engage with the material.  And so part of the role of the teacher is then to navigate the shoals and rapids of a class over the course of a semester.  There are no constant conditions from one year to the next, from one session to the next, and part of what we have to do as teachers is to adapt and to help our students adapt.

But it is a much broader point.  The higher education environment in the UK is changing rapidly at present, even beyond the wider political changes in the UK, and I’m not alone in speculating about the extent to which universities will be different, perhaps unrecognizably so, in ten or twenty years (or sooner), as the technological and social changes we are all experiencing drive us to change.

I could at this point refer back to the joke is talked about some time ago now, about change and academia, but I would like to be more positive than I sometimes am.  Yes, there is great change underway at present, and what we have taken to be constant forms such as the nature of a university are crumbling, but I think this is largely the reflection of the times we live in rather than the nature of change itself.

Everything changes and has always changed.  Perhaps the deeper truth of Sun Tzu’s single line above is that war is no outlier.  There are no constant forms, and so what we should be looking for is the inherent flow in everything around us.  Hoping against hope, that is, that we don’t encounter any ice-nine, that most remarkably stable form of water.

Circling back to the point at which I’d taken aim initially, recognizing the lack of constant forms in anything we do is for me at least an important part of my view of the world.  And this is not ignore the lessons of history.  But on this point, I close with a quote that may or may not be due to Mark Twain: History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

beware, there be spoilers: Galapagos

•21 December 2018 • Leave a Comment

As the end of the year approaches, I’m also getting close to the end of the novels of Vonnegut.  But there is still the non-fiction and the short stories, and so I’m fairly sure that I won’t finish all of Vonnegut in 2018.  We’ll see though how far I can get.

Galapagos has some interesting features.  It purportedly takes place (exactly) a million years in the future, though most of the story is told as a flashback by the narrator.  The narrator is Leon Trotsky Trout, the son of an oft-appearing character in Vonnegut’s novels, the science fiction writer Kilgore Trout.  Actually, the narrator is Leon Trout’s ghost, who was bound to the Bahia de Darwin, the ship that shipwrecked on the (fictional) island of Santa Rosalia in the Galapagos archipelago, and a ship on which he had died during its construction.

It’s a good read, and one of the main directions of speculation undertaken by our narrator is the extent to which humanity’s big brains are the cause of all of our ills.

This comes through clearly in quotes such as ‘That, in my opinion, was the most diabolical aspect of those old-time big brains.  They would tell their owners, in effect, ‘Here is a crazy thing we could actually do, probably, but we would never do it, of course.  It’s just fun to think about.’ ‘  This quote is taken from Chapter 9 of Book 2, wherein Leon is musing about his observation that once we had a crazy idea that was possible, that idea would then drive us mad until we undertook it.

I have to admit that this particular line of reasoning does strike a chord at the moment, given the politics in play in the UK regarding Brexit, which seems to fall into this category of ideas that are simply mad, given the harm and damage that will result even in the most optimistic of scenarios, but are nonetheless idea that has come to transfix a nation.

But enough of politics.  One thing I did note in my reading is that Leon Trout is remarkably sane for a narrator that has been watching the last vestige of humanity live out their lives on one small island.

Ah yes, I forgot to mention to apocalyptic nature of this particular novel.  Human civilization collapses under the stress caused by two separate and as far as I can tell, unconnected events.  One is the realization that money in its current incarnation, as a fiat currency unsupported by a physical underpinning such as gold (my reading, not something explicitly mentioned in the novel), is just an illusion and the world then suffers an economic meltdown the likes of which we have never seen.

The other is a fertility crisis, namely a bacterium that devours human eggs and thereby renders reproduction impossible, except for the isolated inhabitants of Santa Rosalia.  Neither of these apocalypses are explored in any significant detail, though the latter apocalypse of a (generalized) fertility crisis, has shown up in other setting such as Children of Men (though I don’t see an explicit connection between this and Vonnegut).  And economic dystopia are becoming a standard setting for fascinating reads.

So yes, I suppose I want more apocalypse, but that was not to be.  That wasn’t the book I was reading.  I have a chance of finishing the last 3 novels this year and then the rest during January, at which point I can properly begin the reading project for 2019.  But more on that later.

a connection between unrelated things

•2 December 2018 • Leave a Comment

So here’s a weird thing. I’ve always enjoyed watching professional wresting, though I don’t view that in itself as a weird thing. It’s popular for a reason, and part of that reason is that the basic storylines are the sorts of stories we like to watch.

I’ve been thinking a lot about story and our oldest stories. This is sparked by articles like the recent Atlas Obscura article, which are very much the sort of article that appeals to me and sparks my curiosity.

But the connection I made was not between professional wresting and the stories we tell from the stars. Rather, the connection was between professional wresting and the Commedia dell’Arte. Both after all are performances that are based around types, though I’ll admit it’s been some time since I’ve done any serious reading about the Commedia.

And this then starts to spark off other thoughts. To what extent are we bound by the types of characters in the stories we tell each other, and to what extent are our stories bound by these types.

Because this would shape all sorts of things. We are story telling creatures. We have always told each other stories. We have told each other stories to explain the world around us. We have told each other stories to chase away the beasts that prowl around in the night.

We have told each other stories to structure and pass along facts about the world expensively gained over time.

And what are the stories we are telling each other now. I recognize that I have drifted a bit off topic, but I’ve decided to follow the thought. We have started focusing our attention, not on the stories about the world as it is, but rather the stories we are comfortable with.

Perhaps one of the functions of story telling is to pass along the uncomfortable truths about the world. That, as we as mathematicians have learned to our benefit and interest over time, the world does not always bend to our will, however much we wish that it would.

And so this has sparked a project for the year to come. Let’s read the old stories. The oldest stories. And let’s start to explore the connections between these old stories and see where that takes us.