the rise of the machine world 1

•22 February 2020 • Leave a Comment

We are living through an interesting and potentially frightening time, and this is not a new aspect of life. Arguably, every time in human history has been an interesting and frightening time for those who lived through them. We’ll ignore here the obvious reason that we cannot see the future and we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

We create. Over our history, we have developed remarkable technologies: writing to allow for the further creation of systems of governmental control; knapping flint to create knives and axes; steel and gunpowder to facilitate the killing of one another. And much beyond. The technologies themselves are neutral, and what is important is how we use those technologies.

And now, we are creating something else. Watching or reading or listening to the news, we see example after example of how we are training the machine world to be the Skynet in our future. And there is a part of me that wonders, why. But only a part.

We do like our conveniences. Amazon recommends what we might want to read next, Netflix what we might want to watch next and Spotify what we might want to listen to next. Books and films and bands as yet undiscovered, brought to us by the power of algorithms that spend all their time watching and gathering and evaluating. We have come to enjoy allowing machines to mediate between us and the world around us.

Even more than this, we train our machines to recognize us by our faces and how we walk. We train our machines to read our handwriting, license plates and the printed word, and to make sense of the stories we tell each other.

Soon, we will have no place left to hide.

We’ve been writing about this moment for decades. We have been making movies and television about this moment for decades. We have been speculating about the form and motivations of our coming machine overlords for a long time, and we have explored a vast number of possibilities for how we will subject ourselves to the rule of machines.

But I’ll admit, what worries me isn’t the Singularity, machines developing intelligence and deciding that it would be more appropriate for them to be in charge than us.

No, what worries me are machines trained to follow rules but without the intelligence to know what they are doing. What worries me is the possibility that we come to be ruled by overlords that are the manifestation of algorithms trained by the data we provide, but just a blind algorithm.

I am sure that I cannot reasonably estimate what’s been written about this particular topic, and it isn’t one that I’ve yet explored. On the one hand, I now have another topic for reading and study and exploration. On the other hand, I’m tempted to use this as a door to walk through to explore my imagination. And perhaps I’ll take this latter route.

zen and the art of time management

•9 February 2020 • 2 Comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about time management recently, spurred on methinks by the press of meetings and other commitments that fill my days. I have colleagues who will from time to time let me know, in ways subtle and not so subtle, that they feel my diary is already sufficiently full and I shouldn’t add anything new to the mix.

Setting this to the side for the moment, I do feel that one of my great challenges of the present moment is making good use of my time.

Many years ago, not too long after I joined the university, I went on a time management course. I don’t remember much from that course, but there is one thing I do remember, which is the admonition never to pick up the same piece of paper twice.

It’s a quaint memory, from the very early days of the internet, before email and other means of messaging replaced the pieces of paper that we were then constantly circulating to one another. But it’s a quaint memory that contains some significant truth.

It’s not the picking up of the piece of paper that’s the issue. Bringing this old memory into the present day, it’s the effort we spend to bring a task into our focus and consciousness, and then take the task out again without making any actual progress. And having spent some time recently being reflective and watching myself, I do this a lot.

On the one hand, it’s related to something I think I’ve mentioned before, which is the computer science notion of thrashing, where a computer spends all of its effort swapping data and instructions in and out of its memory, without making any progress on the calculations at hand.

But I want to take this in a different direction. Instead of thrashing, I want to think about mindfulness.

At its simple core, mindfulness is living in the moment. I’m not an expert at zen by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve done a bit of reading and I have come to see the value in focusing on this particular moment, rather than the moment just past or the moment to come.

In how it relates to time management, mindfulness might then be focusing on the piece of paper I have just picked up. The task at hand. The task that I don’t want to do, at least not now. The task that gathers weight and an inertia of its own as I time and again pick up the task and set it down again.

And this I think might be a lesson to take from this reflective speculation. Pick up the piece of paper and deal with the task on the paper, or in the email, or if the task is a large one, advance it.

This is complicated for me at the moment. I am working again some old habits that have dug themselves in deep. I’ve talked in earlier posts about procrastination and about the power of habits. And so I have some work to do, in terms of retraining some old instincts and creating new means of addressing the tasks at hand.

more about the Stone Ones

•8 February 2020 • 2 Comments

So after my last post, I’ve been thinking more about the Stone Ones from Gilgamesh. They have only a very brief appearance, but an important one, being part of Gilgamesh’s journey across the Waters of Death to meet Uta-Napishtim, the immortal survivor of the Great Flood.

Perhaps this comes from all of the other appearance of stony creatures that have appeared since. There is the Golem; there are the stone skinned beings from Game of Thrones; Frankenstein’s Adam isn’t a creature of stone but it is a creature nonetheless, even if one perhaps more intelligent than its creator.

There has been some speculation on who, or what, the Stone Ones were in actuality. Anne Kilmer in Crossing the Waters of Death: the Stone Things in the Gilgamesh Epic, speculates that the stone things are part of a method for moving boats in shallow water, by throwing a (stone) anchor and then pulling the boat along.

But for me, and this might just be me, misses a basic point. I’m not sure of the actual Sumerian (or Akkadian) word, and so I don’t know whether the correct translation is Stone Ones or Stone Things. But Gilgamesh falling upon them and smashing them seems to me to indicate something more than Gilgamesh smashing stone anchors, that could be replaced before he and Ur-Shanabi started on their journey.

So I want to believe there is something more interesting here. When I first read Gilgamesh, and when I just reread it, I had the image of moveable stone statues on Ur-Shanabi’s boat, helping Ur-Shanabi propel the boat to the opposite shore of the Waters of Death.

But this makes no sense. Animate stone statues are not the sort of thing that make any sense on a boat. And this just adds to the whole air of something unusual.

So what might the Stone Ones be? I love the image of the animate stone statues, themselves immortal and immune to the effect of the Waters of Death, But if such existed, then surely there would have been mention of them either somewhere else in Gilgamesh or in some other Sumerian epic. My reading of all of Sumer is its early stages, but I’ve not seen any mention of them in my other reading.

I am operating with very incomplete information at this point, but I am struck by their one brief mention in Gilgamesh. One of the speculations that I have carried with me for a long time is the belief that we might carry echoes of stories from deep human time in our stories, and I’m wondering whether this is the case here.

What references from Gilgamesh, perhaps the Stone Ones, perhaps Enkidu, are echoes of much older stories? What strikes me about the Stone Ones in particular is their singularity, and I remember something that I read somewhere, that it is the unusual and the singular in our old stories that we need to pay attention to.

It is the unusual and the singular that we remember as the important elements in our old stories, as they might be the elements that we have some reason to remember, even if we have forgotten why we need to remember and even if we’ve forgotten what they actually mean.

do we need a spoiler warning after 4000 years

•2 February 2020 • 1 Comment

I have now finished The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Penguin Classics edition edited by Andrew Geoge, as part of my current project of reading ancient Sumer. I’d read Gilgamesh before, and I will admit that I still catch my inner voice sometimes mirroring Jean-Luc Picard telling the story to the Tamarian Dathon on El-Adrel as the Tamarian lies dying, in the Start Treak – The Next Generation episode Darmok.

As strange a story as it is in places, and it can be a bit strange, Gilgamesh captured my imagination from my first encounter, I don’t remember how long ago. Part of the reason stems from the depths of my own ignorance. Gilgamesh stands for me as a stark reminder of the context inherent in stories.

Stories are born of and stories are told by people who share a context, a culture, a history. This won’t come as a revelation to anyone, and my reason for bringing it up isn’t to make some grand claim. Rather, I view it as a constant reminder of all of our interpretations of the world that have slipped through our fingers over the course of years.

What are the echoes, the associations that would have rung for an Akkadian or a Sumerian, listening to a bard recite Gilgamesh? I will admit to being filled with a sense of loss every time I think of this, because these echoes and associations are a key part of that culture, a web tying together more or less strongly so many different stories.

To take just one small such thing, there is a passing reference in Gilgamesh to the Stone Ones. They seem to be the crew of the ferryman Ur-shanabi, who is the only conduit to Uta-napishti across the Waters of Death, who alone among all men survived the great flood and was made immortal by the gods.

When Gilgamesh first encounters Ur-shanabi in his quest to find Uta-napishti, he falls upon the Stone Ones and smashes them, and so is forced then to help Ur-shanabi propel his boat across the Waters of Death.

Strangely, though, Ur-shanabi doesn’t scold or attack Gilgamesh for destroying his crew. And so I’ve become curious and want to know more about the Stone Ones, but there seems to have been very little that’s been written about them. Perhaps this is just how the stories been told and I’m reading too much into it, but Ur-shanabi doesn’t lament the destruction of the Stone Ones. Poetically, such a lamentation would have been an interesting juxtaposition, given that Gilgamesh himself wants to find Uta-napishti to learn the secret of immortality.

But what I would love to know is what a Sumerian would have understood the Stone Ones to be and to mean, if an allegory for something else, and what other stories they had that involved such beings as the Stone Ones.

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.