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.

from an observation to some wild speculation

•25 November 2018 • Leave a Comment

Earlier this week, Tuesday I think, I noticed something that I’d noticed many times before, but this time it sparked a question it hadn’t sparked before.

Winter is working its way towards us and so the sky was clear and the moon hung almost perfectly full, with only a slight fuzziness on its left hand side.  I’d noticed this fuzziness before but I realized I didn’t know whether the moon was waxing towards full in the next night or two, or whether the moon had just been full and was now waning.

I realized then the extent to which I’d lost the night sky.  I can remember being on camping trips as a kid, either family trips or as part of the local Boy Scout troop, looking up at the sky.  But for the past couple of decades I’ve lived in or near cities, and so it’s only the light of the moon, the planets and the brightest stars that survives the trip.

And that’s when I started to speculate.  And one thing I know is that others have speculated along these lines, and so one task for the new year is to go and see what they’ve written about all of this.

Go back far enough and the night sky was the television and the internet of the age, and perhaps a bit more.  Everyone had access to the night sky, and one question is whether we’ll be able to unpick how much of our mythology is tied up in our observations of the night sky, the movement of the planets, the precession of the equinox.

Just how observant were our distant ancestors and what mechanisms did they have for preserving their observations, before we had the written word?

And this is part of the difficulty.  Oral histories disappear with the people who are no longer around to tell their stories, and I don’t know what work’s been done, or can be done, to try and catch the echoes of these old stories in the stories we currently tell each other.

What I think is an even more interesting subject of speculation is, what were the stories our cousins, the Neanderthals and the Denisovians and all the others, were telling each other around their fires.  How did they see the night sky.  What for instance did they think of the planets, moving through the stars night after night, as though engaged in some grand quest?

And the big question, to which the answer is almost certainly no.  Are there any echoes of these cousin stories in our own myths and stories?  And how would we know?


teaching with Rumsfeld’s taxonomy of knowledge

•18 November 2018 • Leave a Comment

I like that thing I have come to refer to as the Donald Rumsfeld taxonomy of knowledge: the decomposition of human knowledge into the four categories of the known knowns, the known unknowns, the unknown knowns, and the unknown unknowns.  (See for Rumsfeld’s original quote and some discussion.)

Perhaps I’m overstating things by using the term taxonomy. I’m not a philosopher of knowledge, and I don’t want to focus on how Rumsfeld’s quote fits into current discussions of what knowledge is, how we know things, et cetera.  Rather, I want to talk about using Rumsfeld’s taxonomy as a tool in teaching.

In our aikido classes recently, we’ve been exploring aspects of internal movement, specifically aspects of how we use our deep musculature to move ourselves and to move others.  What I find interesting in this exploration is the amount of time I’m currently spending dwelling in the unknown unknown area of Rumsfeld’s taxonomy.

Because for me, this is an exploration of unknown unknowns. One interesting aspect of this, which I’ve started exploring elsewhere, is the nature of the language we use and the language we have to use.

I find these explorations difficult. I am having to find a way of making contact with parts of this deep musculature, the muscles around my spine for instance, that I hadn’t ever thought about before. I don’t yet have a good language for understanding what I’m trying to do and developing that language takes time and practice.

This is a point that those who know me, know that I think about a lot, because I do think this issue of distance between teacher and student is critical, as is the effect that growing mastery has on the language we use.

There is the question of how we move things from the quadrant of unknown unknowns to elsewhere in the taxonomy, and I think that a significant part of this move has to be the development of language that allows us to gain some traction on these items we don’t understand.

After all, a large part of a thing being in the quadrant of unknown unknowns is that we don’t recognize the existence of that thing, because once we have awareness, we can interrogate and ask, is this thing an unknown thing or a known thing.

This same general question is a big influence on my teaching of mathematics. I need to become the guide for my students, guiding them from the dark cave of the unknown unknowns.

Here, similarly to aikido, the unknown unknowns aren’t always, and aren’t often, issues of fact. Often, they are issues of processing of facts. How for instance can we take a question apart, explore its pieces and solve the pieces, and from these create a solution to the original question.

A journey, a quest is then to become the better guide, for myself and for those I’m teaching. And this is a journey I expect never to complete, however much I might improve along the way.