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.

beware, there be spoilers: Player Piano

•25 February 2018 • Leave a Comment

OK, so perhaps I’m being a bit overly cautious, warning of the possibility of spoilers for a book first published in 1952.  But I don’t know whether you’re planning on reading it, and it’s quite an enjoyable read.  My reading plan for the year 2018 is to read (among other things, it’s an extensive plan) the complete works of Kurt Vonnegut, and Player Piano is his first novel.  I should say, this is not intended as a book review but rather, I would like to use Player Piano as a bit of a stepping off point.

Interestingly enough, it’s not hard to view Player Piano as smack in the middle of science fiction genre-land.  A brief summary for those who haven’t read it (yet): After a war following World War II, much production in the US has been automated, and the machines and their decisions are beginning to take over in ways that many people find uncomfortable.

People lose their jobs if they are found unworthy by the machines, and are then become part of the great unwashed, provided with the necessities of life except for value.  Their skills are recorded on tape and punch cards, and then the people are cast aside.  And this is the foundation of the rebellion, into which the not entirely intrepid Dr Paul Proteus gets drawn.

What I found most interesting is how this book fits into a growing body of work on the dangers of the machine world.  I would have loved to spend an evening in a bar with Mr Vonnegut, discussing the basic thesis of his book and its relationship to what’s happening now, though now much more quickly and much more extensively.

There is a fundamental difference between what is happening now and what happened in Player Piano.  There, the machines were not aware and they were operating under the rules we gave them, and we still had an understanding of these rules.  At no point did the machines make a decision that was incomprehensible to the characters in the novel, however much they might have disagreed with that decision.

Now, though, expert systems and deep machine learning allow computers to develop their own algorithms, and we sometimes don’t have any idea of what is going on inside these algorithms.  In fact, we will at some point come to a point where the level of complexity and information required for those algorithms will be beyond the capability of the human brain to handle full stop.  And this is beginning to worry some people.

Our stories are becoming full of machines that run amok or otherwise behave in ways we don’t understand, following an internal logic that’s foreign to us their creators.  And this I think is going to make for a very interesting future indeed.

zen and the art of administration

•28 January 2018 • 2 Comments

I am not a scholar of Buddhism in general or of zen in particular.  I’ve done some reading over the years, dipping in hither and thither, but nothing systematic.  I like Stephen Batchelor‘s interpretation and much of my thinking on zen has also influenced by the connections between zen and martial arts, which isn’t surprising after having studied and practiced aikido for some 20 years.

Legend has it that Ueshiba Morehei O’Sensei, the founder of aikido, had no time for zen.  I will admit that this gives room for the nagging question in the back of my mind, a small quiet but nonetheless persistent question, of whether I’ll be able to do O’Sensei’s aikido without having O’Sensei’s view of the world.

But then the louder, more realistic and somewhat more reasonable, voice comes in and says, you’ll never be able to do O’Sensei’s aikido anyway, given y’all’s different paths through life, and so don’t sweat it; just do the best you can.

And this is a very zen attitude, as I have come rightly or wrongly to understand zen.  It goes back to the old adage, which I read somewhere but for which I didn’t note the source: there’s no point in worrying about the things over which you have no control.  And there’s no point in worrying about the things over which you have some control. As Yoda says, Try not.  Do.  Or do not.  There is no try.

But what does all of this have to do with being an administrator?  One of the basic tenets that I take from Buddhism is that the world is as the world is, whether I pay attention to it or not.  I have the choice of recognizing the world as it is or not, but the world abides and doesn’t care or notice the choice I’ve made.

So part of being an administrator is keeping an eye on and being aware of everything.  This is hard to do and is impossible to do alone, and this realization has played a large part in how I’ve tried to develop and structure my approach to administration.  I have always tried to view myself and to act as one part of a much larger team.  After all, the more eyes we have surveying the horizon, the more of the horizon we can see.

And this brings up another aspect of this line of thought, which is that of contingency.  I’m aware that contingency is a word that has multiple related meanings, but the meaning I’m using here is one thing depending on another.

Large organizations are complex.  One change hither may well cause or require a change thither.  A butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the organization, and sometime later there might arise a small storm elsewhere in the organization.

And so any change, however local, needs to be considered with an eye towards its contingent effects elsewhere.  The conservative view would be, make then no changes, but I don’t see this as a reasonable view to take.  One reason is that the external environment, the rest of the world, is constantly changing and so the contingencies will always reach far far beyonds the bounds of the organization and it’s impossible to ignore these external changes.

But we can’t ignore these external changes or the need for internal changes in response to each other and to the external changes.  And so all we can do is to think through the contingent results of these changes and to shape ourselves as best we can in the face of them.

I’m sure that these ideas have been explored by others, and if you’re reading this and have come across these or similar ideas before, I’d be interested in sources.


•21 January 2018 • Leave a Comment

Even though I am well established in my career, to the point where I am now more often asked when I’ll retire rather than when I started, I still find myself part of the eternal conversation, what do you want to do when you grow up?  Often, this comes up when I’m talking with students, but it has also been known to arise as part of the perambulating conversations we have during the beer-at-the-end-of-the-day sessions that happen from time to time.

And I know what I’ve always want to be.  I want to be an ideamonger.  A forger and fashioner of ideas.  What I find interesting is that looking back, it’s clear to me that I haven’t always known that this is what I want to be, but reflecting on my path to this point in my life provides some clear illumination that I’ve been moving towards this nonetheless.

Mathematics, my main professional interest, is very much a forge and battleground of ideas.  We explore the abstract, seeking to glean what we can from the ideas and concepts before us, sometimes exploring their consequences until we are forced to come up for air, and sometimes exploring their practical consequences.

Mathematics has allowed me to have a career spanning research and education, so not only can I explore ideas for their own sake and the sake of their consequences, but I’m also able to transmit those ideas through my teaching.  And it’s more than transmitting the ideas themselves; it’s also teaching the process of exploring ideas, challenging them, forcing them to reveal themselves.  This is something that I’m finding more and more interesting, somedays I have to admit more than the exploration of the ideas themselves.  And it also explains the occasional lecture I give on a topic unrelated to mathematics.

And the writing I do, when I do writing, is also an exploration of ideas.  I recently made the mistake of going through my GIANT FILE OF STORY IDEAS, as vast a list as it is, and I was able to see some general grouping of some of these ideas into coherent areas of exploration.  For me, I’ll admit that this makes the act of writing a bit more difficult, as I find myself distracted by the ideas more than the individual stories, but that’s just one more thing I’ll need to work through.

But I’m also finding that things are coming together in interesting ways.   A long time ago, I read Jokester by Asimov and it’s one of those stories that always stayed with me.  In part it’s shaped how I think about mathematics, in that part of the process of discovery and proof is asking the right question, since the right question will point us in the right direction.

But it’s more than that.  Education is changing and a large part of what’s driving that change is that facts are no longer expensive to store and transmit.  Rather, it’s the process by which we interrogate facts that is becoming the interesting thing, and so we need to be better at asking interesting questions.