beware, there be spoilers: Mother Night

•22 April 2018 • Leave a Comment

Three down and some number to go, and reading Vonnegut’s Mother Night has led me to ponder, and not for the first time, the nature of coincidence.

One coincidence is that Howard W Campbell, Jr, the character from whose point of view the story is told, is one of those characters who deliberately makes themselves the face of the enemy.  This is something that Vonnegut has done before, though in a slightly different way, as we wrote about in beware, there be spoilers: The Sirens of Titan.

The context is different here, because Howard finds himself being recruited by an American intelligence agent to become the voice of the Nazi regime during the second world war, and he does it spectacularly, remarkably well.  I don’t want to say much more, in case you do want to read Mother Night, which I recommend we all do.

Another coincidence is a smaller and stranger one, and gets to a completely different point, which is the extent to which we pick up ideas from the things we read.  And this part is pure pure speculation.

I don’t know whether Douglas Adams ever wrote about why he chose 42 as the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.  After all, 42 is a quite respectable number.  Not too small and not too large, an integer, the product of 2 and 3 and 7, which has great significance in my field of research for reasons I really don’t want to go into here.

The agent who recruited and ran Campbell during Mother Night at one point towards the end of the book, in their third and final face to face meeting, comments that Campbell was the only one of the 42 agents he recruited that survived the war.

I don’t know whether Adams read Mother Night and I don’t know whether the number 42 stuck itself into some subconscious crevice, to make a later appearance in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but it did get me thinking about what excavations of my own subconscious crevices I undertake when I’m writing.

I suspect it’s a lot.  When I’m casting about for something that feels write, an incident or a fact, or a number, that has the right feel to it for what I’m doing, I wonder how often I’m finding and using something with whose shape I’m familiar.  Something to pay some attention to, the next time I sit down for a bit of writing.


a question I love to ponder

•21 April 2018 • Leave a Comment

I recently read a lovely article in the Atlantic, which has (somewhat slightly) caused me to reconsider my current course in life.  But then, I have a list of things that I would love to do, as I’m sure we all do, beyond the things I’m doing now.

The article speculates on how we might be able to determine whether there was an advanced civilization on Earth millions or tens of millions of years ago.  If memory serves, and I’m not entirely sure that it does, this is an idea that while not the main idea, occurs in The Toolmaker Koan by John McLaughlin in 1988.

But this idea, that we are not the first advanced civilization on Earth, is an idea that I have to admit some fascination with.  We know remarkably little of the history of our planet and of life on our planet.  Our written record goes back only a few thousand years, and the fossil record beyond that is sparse and gets sparser as we go back in time.

After all, every year brings discoveries about our own lineage and that of our cousins that causes us to reconsider our own story on the planet, and by all available evidence, our story is a fairly recent story.

There is a part of me that’s sad that the article concludes that there probably wasn’t an advanced civilization of dinosaurs, for instance, though I remain ever hopeful.  But closer to home, and this is something I’ve speculated a bit about in Giants, Neanderthals and old stories written some long time ago, that I also have hopes that our history and that of our hominid cousins is culturally more complicated than we currently believe.

beware, there be spoilers: Colossus: the Forbin project

•15 April 2018 • Leave a Comment

While I’m still reading Vonnegut, I did take some time to watch the film version of a book I remember reading some long time ago, Colossus by D F Jones.   I have fond memories of the book, and I enjoyed the movie.

I found it particularly interesting, given the state of the world today.  While there is Colossus and Guardian’s collective understanding of the human condition and the cause of human suffering, a topic worthy of discussion in its own right, I’m more intrigued at the moment by the idea of a human-created artificial intelligence run amok.

I don’t know the history of stories about human-created artificial intelligences run amok, though I’m sure someone has written one (and if you know of one, let me know because I’m curious).  But I would think that Colossus would be one of the first.

I’ll admit that I’m not as interested in killer robots run amok, because the robots might not be very mindful of the havoc and chaos they are creating.  And though it clearly has a place in this whole lineage, I’m not including Frankenstein in this discussion.  Though Frankenstein’s creation does to a small extent run amok and is human-created, it is powered by a human brain.

What I find most striking about Colossus is not the artificial intelligence itself, Colossus and Guardian come together, but rather the naivite of their creators.  And this got me thinking.  Through short stories and novellas, books and films, perhaps stage plays and strange variants of commedia dell’arte, we have become accustomed to the idea of human creations going wrong, and we have lost some of the optimism of the characters in those works, if not the authors.

Why oh why would anyone think it a good idea to turn the defence of the nation, and all the weapons needed or designed for that defence, to a machine that can’t be turned off.  Perhaps this is a lesson that we needed to learn, and I suspect that even at the time it was speculative to turn the fate of the world over to technology.

But it is an idea that has some persistence to it – we can’t be relied on to take care of ourselves, so let’s outsource it to an objective machine.  And come the end of the movie, all I could think was, poor Doctor Forbin, lying in the bed that he’d built.

But now I’m curious.  We create ideas, we write about them and explore them through the literature we write and consume.  And to what extent do the stories we then find ourselves telling one another, come to shape our view of the world when those things finally start becoming possible?

beware, there be spoilers: The Sirens of Titan

•6 April 2018 • 3 Comments

I’m sure that I’ve read The Sirens of Titan before but it must have been a long time ago, as I didn’t remember any of it. I didn’t remember, for instance, that the sirens themselves don’t play a significant role in the book.

I don’t remember the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, with its basic creed that we should ‘take care of the people, and God Almighty will take care of himself.’ I have to admit, it’s an attractive creed for a religion, as it’s never been clear how fragile, mortal creatures such as humans should be called up or feel it necessary to defend an omnipotent deity.

And there is an idea at the core of the book that Vonnegut makes good use of, and if I were to ever decide to turn my hand again to formal studentdom, it might be an idea that I would explore in some depth.

The idea is this: the way to unify humankind, to allow us as a collective whole to take care of each other, make sure all are fed and clothed and safe from the world and each other, is to create an external enemy that requires us to come together.

The idea of the external enemy bringing us together is commonly used; the instance that most immediately comes to my mind is the film Independence Day, though I’m suspect that this wouldn’t be the first instance that comes to most peoples’ minds.

But this idea of the internal enemy, of someone amongst humankind creating an enemy to unify humankind, I find to be a remarkably intriguing idea. A variant occurs in an episode of The Outer Limits (I think?), in which a scientists volunteers to be extensively surgically modified to become as an alien, but is then hunted and killed before he can undertake his mission.

There’s also a story I remember reading, title and author unfortunately long forgotten, where a human defects to join an invading alien race, but his true self-appointed mission is to persuade the aliens to undertake sufficiently grotesque actions against humankind that he becomes the monster that humankind comes together to track down and kill. Though in the end, he makes sure there’s no body to find, to keep humankind on their toes.

And this is where the Army of Mars comes in. The Army of Mars, kidnapped humans being remotely controlled by devices implanted in their brains, is the invading force that causes humans to unite and to come together under the banner of the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent.

This idea, of one or more people deciding to unify humanity by creating an enemy that leaves no other option, is an idea that I’m sure I’ll explore further, here or elsewhere.

the university in 20 years 2

•2 April 2018 • 4 Comments

The world is a wise thing and I need to become a better listener to what the world is whispering in my ears and shouting in my face.

I wrote yesterday a few words, no more than an abstract of an introduction really, about the university in 20 years.  No sooner had I written than TED emailed me the link to a talk by Erica Stone.  She talks about open access but much more than that.  She talked about researchers engaging with local media, sharing their results and using them to improve their local communities.

And I will admit, as much as I enjoyed her talk, that it hit something in me that I’ve been thinking about for a long time now, and it raises a question.

I am a pure mathematician, a geometer, working in a relatively small corner of the pure mathematical universe, which is itself just a part of the larger and wider mathematical universe.  So how would I explain my research to my next door neighbors and the people I work with?

I have one answer, which I don’t find particularly satisfactory I have to admit.  I can explain non-Euclidean geometry, which is the area I work in, and I can explain why non-Euclidean geometry is relevant to the world around us, but by using work done by others.  Not using the work I’ve done myself.  (But don’t worry – I won’t do that here.)

I think perhaps I’m suffering from the academic equivalent of the mid-life crisis, the need to do something different to leaven all of the same that I’m doing from one day to the next.  Or perhaps I need to view it as being the opportunity to start a new part of my journey.

Because I can keep doing the research I’m doing, writing the papers I write for the small audiences that will read them.  But I can do more than that.  I can start actively asking the question, how does this all affect the world around me, rather than waiting for something to find me.

I seem to be starting lots of quests at the moment, but I think they’re all tied together.  How I work as a academic mathematician.  How universities work.  How education works.  The connections might be loose at the moment, but we’ll see what we can do to bring them together a bit more tightly.

the university in 20 years

•1 April 2018 • 1 Comment

I’ve just read The Enemy Within by Mark Leach of WONKHE, and I found it a fascinating read.  As with all things, not everyone will agree with all that’s written, but he does touch on some of the political issues currently facing universities in the UK.

But more than just these current political issues, higher education in general, not only in the UK, is facing a number of issues.  The open access debate continues to rumble on, about ensuring that publicly funded research, or research in general, should be made available to all.

And while it is clear that the impact of technology on the education of students at all levels will be massive, it is not yet clear how universities will adapt and how the mission of universities will change over time.

I read what things I can get my hands on, from articles at WONKHE and HEPI, to things I acquire via Twitter and colleagues and elsewhere, and I occasionally speculate on my own on various small aspects of this general question, including the hither and the thither and the yon.

There seems to be a general consensus developing, of the university as the engine of local growth, integrated with education and business in its area, and for me this is a much more attractive idea of a university than the recently traditional view of university as ivory tower.

And for me, the question then becomes, how do we get there from here.  Like the math questions that I ponder when I have the time, I find the detail of this question fascinating, and like other questions, there isn’t a quick answer.

Rather, I think, there’s a process of change that we as universities need to undertake.  We need to take our facility for critical reflection that we are so readily able to turn on our work, the work of colleagues around the world and even our students, and turn it on ourselves.  Because I’m confident we can find answers that work for us, and even amidst everything, we can reshape ourselves into the universities we need to become.

I don’t know what shapes universities will have taken in 20 years time, but I am curious to find out and I’m looking forward to being part of the process of getting there from here.

a quest to understand how we might best learn 1

•24 March 2018 • 4 Comments

I have been teaching in higher education for just about 30 years, starting during my time as a graduate student. I like to think that I have become over those years a reasonable teacher. My students enjoy my classes, by all reports, and I feel comfortable in front of a group of students.

I have had some small amount of training in teaching over those years, and I’ve also developed and delivered some bits of training for my colleagues. But for all of my experience, accumulated over time, I have come to realize that I have a gap in my knowledge. And I want to bridge this gap.

Bridging this gap is going to be a quest of sorts, and it is not one that I’m going to be able to undertake on my own. Nor it is a quest I should undertake on my own. It will be a slow going quest, because I’ll have to learn about and explore areas of human knowledge that are significantly beyond what my personal area of expertise. But then, this is the sort of quest that I enjoy. And it’s never too late to start the quest.

How it is that people learn?

We are creatures of flesh, our minds running vaguely like software on the physical structure of our brains. There is a conversation to be had as part of this whole investigation about memes and the role of memes in the evolution of the brain. There is a conversation to be had about how our brains and society have evolved in tandem with one another. There is a conversation to be had about the physical environment in which our distant ancestors evolved.

But in all the time I’ve been teaching, I’ve not yet been involved in a conversation about how our physical infrastructure affects how we learn, and this is what I wish to understand. And it has come to seem very strange to me that we don’t have a greater appreciation of how we learn. How can we teach effectively if we don’t understand how we learn.

I can speculate on one reason for this, and it goes into an even deeper question. This deeper question is the extent to which we as individual human beings understand how our own brains work. Because I’m convinced, from what little I know about psychology, that most people have no clear idea of why we do the things we do. Our brains do an extremely effective job of hiding their inner workings from us.

But this is speculation, and uninformed speculation at that. And so part of the quest will be, just what do we know and how might we use that to help us be better teachers. And to be better people.