how the little green men might defeat us humans 5

•13 October 2019 • Leave a Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the transmission of expertise

•12 January 2020 • Leave a Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the reading project going forward

•31 December 2019 • 2 Comments

As a child, my eyes were always bigger than my stomach, both literally and figuratively. I was, and still am, the sort who will never get their money’s worth at an all you can eat buffet, and my list of projects is always longer than the available time will allow, regardless of the time scale I set for them. And, as I have been experiencing over the past few weeks, regardless of the severity of the pruning of those lists.

On this last day of 2019, I thought I would take the traditional approach and reflect on the current reading project, my third over the past three years. In 2017, I read the Sir Richard Burton translation of the Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights, and in 2018 (and into the early part of 2019) I read the complete fiction of Kurt Vonnegut. (I will admit that I still have one or two collections of essays on the bedside table.)

For 2019, I set myself the project of starting at the beginning of human literature and working my way through chronologically, just to see how far I could get. In retrospect, I can only describe this as a project defined by the sheer spectacular scale of its foolishness and naïveté.

This is not to say that I’ve given up, as I haven’t, but I have realized that I need to take a step back and be a bit more cautious and prudent in my planning.

I’ve talked about a few of the issues impacting this project in previous posts, but in the end of calendar spirit of reprising and reflection, the main issue was my ignorance at the volume of what the Sumerians had written.

They were prolific scribes and writing as they did on clay tablets, we have a goodly amount of what they had written, though sometimes only in fragments. Not all of what we have has been translated, and despite my first paragraph above, I don’t have the time to learn how to read cuneiform and ancient Sumerian.

I am becoming intrigued by the Sumerians, a people whose language is unrelated to any other language. I have come to the realization that to understand what the Sumerians are writing, I need to have a deeper appreciation of who the Sumerians were, and so part of the project will be reading what we currently know of the history and culture of ancient Sumer.

And so, as was inevitable in retrospect, the project has expanded beyond merely reading, but to developing the wider context of the people whose stories and proverbs I am reading. Their myths and the stories of their gods. The day to day life in their great cities, to the extent to which we have developed a picture of this. The facts and theories of their origin and how this might have impacted the stories they told, gathered around their hearths at night.

And looking forward, I can see how this will impact this project going forward. Because after Sumer and Akkad and their successors, the Assyrians and the Babylonians, I will make my way to Egypt, in all of its extensive glory.

In a deeper sense, I’m happy to have been so wrong about the extent of this project. I have always held the belief that our distant ancestors were capable of, and accomplished, much more than we sometimes give them credit for, and the widening and overwhelming scale of this project is just one more demonstration of this.

reflections and the arbitrariness of time

•28 December 2019 • 1 Comment

A few weeks ago, I wrote about encounters with old files and some reflections that arose from those encounters, including the impetus to finish some of these old projects.

As though the universe is making sure that I understand the message, I am experiencing an interesting confluence, with the near simultaneous end of two unconnected cycles: one is the calendar (Gregorian) year and the other is reaching the end of the current volume of my journal.

The end of the calendar year is by its nature of time of reflection; we look back over the year that’s coming to its end and we look forward into the year that is at its beginning.

The reason I mention in the title the arbitrariness of time, is that tying this reflection to the Gregorian year is somewhat arbitrary. The calendar cycle is natural, considering the motion of the Earth around the Sun, but there is no reason that reflection in the midst of the (northern hemisphere) winter is more natural than reflection in the middle of our summer.

Beyond this, we as humans have multiple different calendar years, beyond the Gregorian year is which natural to me solely I think due to its familiarity. It is the calendar I have always known.

Beyond the Gregorian year, which is the year just coming to its end, I also have the academic year, which in England runs from late September through June. Others have different academic years, and we each have our rituals of reflection at the ends of those years.

Though it is not tied to calendar or academic years, another cycle in my life is my journal cycle. I keep a daily journal and have for more than 22 years now. The gathering of ideas as one journal comes to an end and the planning of things to do in the next journal cycle, is another one of these moments for reflection.

Each of these cycles is at its core arbitrary and each of them provokes the same question: why wait until the end of the year, the end of the cycle, to start the work of the next cycle. Why not start today?

And this is what the universe seems to be saying to me, and this is the voice I find myself listening to.

an old exercise regarding the things we know

•8 December 2019 • 1 Comment

I am a bit of a collector of interesting things. I keep my lists, going through and pruning them, refining them from time to time, and I’ve spent some time this weekend doing some of this pruning. This is, I suppose, a continuation of last weekend and its exploration of old files.

Something I picked up years ago, whose source I have unfortunately forgotten, is an exercise that reminds us that there are multiple levels of knowing.

As an exercise, whisper to yourself the months of the year as fast as you can. I just did it myself, in round about 4 seconds, and this doesn’t come as a surprise. After all, we’ve known the months of the year for essentially our whole lives. They are a basic part of our structure of measuring the passage of time.

Now comes the exercise. Whisper to yourself the months of the year, but now in alphabetical order.

Even now, having done this exercise many times over many years, it still takes me considerably longer than the 4-ish seconds for the months in chronological order.

I don’t remember the context in which I first undertook this exercise, but it has become part of what I carry with me whenever I teach, because it illustrates for me a fundamental point. We might know things; we might have access and understanding of particularly facts and bits of knowledge; but we always have to consider the context in which we learned and in which we use that knowledge.

We always think of months chronologically, because months deal with time and time is by its nature chronological. But when we impose a different context, such as the alphabetical context, then we realize we don’t have the access to that knowledge independent of context.

I’ll admit that my favorite variant is alphabetizing the numbers from one to ten, using how they are normally written out as words.

So what lessons can we take from this? In aikido, we have a standard structure to our practice. We alternate sides; we attack in a structured way; and even the clothing we wear during practice and the etiquette that suffuses a practice. All of these are part of the context in which we learn and execute our techniques.

We become aware of this when we practice in an unstructured way, where we don’t restrict the attack and/or we don’t restrict the techniques that can be executed. I always find this free practice to be wildly illuminating, because it’s through such practice that we can this context.

Administratively, we have process and procedure that informs everything we do, and what we sometimes can forget is that while there are external influences and external expectations and requirements that we need to adhere to, much of what we do is our internally developed mechanism for satisfying the requirements we must satisfy, and these are things we can change.

Educationally, this issue of context will often reveal itself both in how we as teachers structure and deliver, and also in what the students expect of us. Changing these expectations requires dedicated attention, and for me, that’s something to consider for next year, as we have almost run through the semester this year.

Experience has taught me that I will keep coming back to this exercise and the depths of consideration through which it takes me.

on things we find

•30 November 2019 • 2 Comments

Over the past few days, I’ve been doing some tidying, mainly of old files on my computer, and it’s been an uncomfortable experience for me as a would-be writer.

I have started a large number of projects that I have never brought to a conclusion, and I’ll admit that the weight of all of them together is becoming – has become – a bit difficult to bear. Most of these are short stories where I’ve pulled together part of a draft but then moved on to the first draft of part of the next story, never going back to finish what I’d started.

I knew that this was a habit that I’d formed over time, but I hadn’t realized the extent of it. (I could give you, dear reader, a number but I’m not sure you’d be believe me. Let it suffice to say, it’s larger than it should be.) One particularly sharp realization was that the novel that all who know me have given up on ever seeing, is almost of voting age; the oldest file I’ve found dates back to February 2002.

And it goes beyond just the writing projects I’ve started. So yes, perhaps part of this whole process will be a moderation of ambition; not taking on the too many things that I also have a tendency to do.

So, yikes.

All the old familiar voices have been joining into my internal chorus. Some of these stories are ones that others have taken the time and effort to comment on, and yet still they sit. I’m not getting any younger. The day job. My capacity for procrastination seems to have reached what can only be described as epic proportions.

I’ve written about procrastination before, but I haven’t really confronted this knack I have for procrastination; it might be fair to say that I keep putting off doing so.

No more. I don’t have the strength or the desire to carry the half completed and barely started anymore. Today is the day I draw a line in the sand. I am too aware that I will slip and that I won’t deal with things while they are in hand, setting them aside to start the slow process of gathering dust. But today I start.

Setting this declaration down in such a (potentially) public way seems to be me to be a strange thing to do; all I can think is that this is where my mind is today, and this is what’s coming through my fingers as I sit down to type.

And there is something that occurs to me. If you’ve taken the time to read this far, please feel free to poke. Ask about the daily word count. Ask about how whether I’ve resubmitted the recently rejected. Ask, if you wish, about the novel.

And now, I have a bit of time and so I’m going to sit down and put down some words. I’ll do some more organizing, as there is always more to be done, lining up the things to be done, but for the next little while, let’s focus some time and attention on the doing.

the reading project: eternal truths

•17 November 2019 • Leave a Comment

I am currently reading Sumerian Proverbs: Glimpses of Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia but Edmund I Gordon, and I had one of those moments where I realized the commonality of human experience across the whole of recorded (written) human history.

On page 15 of (my edition of) Gordon, we find the proverb: He acquires many things; he must keep close watch over them.

And we are still saying this. We are still talking about being the custodian of our things.

This realization struck a chord in me. Looking back over almost 4000 years of human writings, we find these threads that have persisted for all of that time.

One thing I find interesting is that if we compare the material wealth we have access to in current days, against the material wealth available to even the well to do in ancient Mesopotamia, we have access to more. And yet, to be recorded, this expression must have been kicking around for some time.

There are things that we will never know. One is, who was the first person to formulate this basic idea as an idea worth sharing with others. One worth codifying into a phrase. One worth committing to print. One worth preserving.

And yet, looking around at the world we inhabit today, consumption and acquisition still form a large part of the advertising we find ourselves subject to, and the underlying rules on which our society is built.

So what to do with this realization? One is to look around and ask, what of the things around me are things I actually need, and this is a question I find myself asking often, and not often enough.

I have to admit that I don’t include books in this discussion. I agree with the basic point of view that buying books, owning books and reading books are related but distinct pleasures, and I have a weakness for all three.

But looking around and getting rid of the things around me is only the start. The more important thing to do is to not acquire in the first place, and this reminds me of a science fiction story I once read, about a future capitalist society in which increasing consumption had become required of all citizens, to keep the social bubble inflated.

It’s a story that’s been written more than once, I’m sure.

This post was based on a single proverb and its similarity to modern expressions. As I keep reading, I’ll make notes of other Sumerian proverbs that strike a similar chord, and we’ll see where we find ourselves.

the reading project: Babylonian wisdom literature

•9 November 2019 • Leave a Comment

So, here’s the thing. I set myself a reading project for the year (and some future years), of starting at the beginning of what we humans have written, and to work my way through relatively chronologically until I get to the point of deciding on a different reading project.

I began naively with the Ancient Literature page from Wikipedia and a trip to the University of Southampton library. There, I found Babylonian Wisdom Literature by W G Lambert, first published in 1960, which I have now read.

It was an interesting read, and not only because of the form and structure of the stories. Trees talking to trees and animals conversing in fables, and the occasional distant earlier echo of familiar stories.

This brings lots of questions to my mind, beyond the questions of how to translate the idioms of a dead language. This latter point did come up in the commentary and the translation notes, where Lambert notes from time to time that it is not possible to provide a translation, because essentially we don’t know enough.

There is the problem of the damage that time has wrought to the clay tablets, and we find ourselves lost in the ruined hallways of the Library of Ashurbanipal, where some of these tablets lay until discovered.

My initial view that the history of human writing would be something like a narrow highway, at least at its far distant beginning, was very quickly shattered. And yes, I should have much earlier realized not only the fact of my mistake but also the extent of my mistake.

We have been telling stories for a long time, as long perhaps as we have been human, and we have been recording our stories for as long as we have been able to.

I wonder at times whether by recording our stories, writing them down or filming them, we are doing them some damage. After all, the act of recording introduces a permanence to the recorded version of the story, when perhaps stories are naturally more fluid and changeable.

What might it be like, to be a story, to have a structure, a skeleton that persists over time, with different flesh and skin depending on the needs and knowledge of the teller and their audience. What must it have been like to be a bard, to carry these skeletons from one fire to another, from one village to another, bringing them to life for an evening, for each audience in turn.

And then, by making some marks in clay or drawing symbols in ink on paper, that fluidity disappears. That version of the story becomes the canonical version, or one canonical version among a small group. The canon becomes shackles, preventing the story from roaming.

But now, I find myself with a choice. I can immerse myself in the Sumerians and the Akkadians, or I can be more strictly chronological and venture to Egypt. I think I shall stick with the Sumerians and their kin. I will do some reading around and discover what we know about our distant cousins, and leave the vastness of Egypt for later.