Friday, 29 June 2007

That Friday Feeling

Since when did the "Friday Feeling" become "meh"?

Maybe I just need to get out more, but I can remember when I used to really look forward to the weekend. Lately, as tiring and stressful as work can be I get to the weekend and think "What am I going to do?" or more usually, "What am I going to do to fill the time well?"

I have a kind of obsession lately with making good use of my time, which is probably why I spend so much time on Facebook or trawling through the archives of various webcomics or blogs. Some things that I am thinking about doing this weekend include: continuing to read the Amazing Spider-Man omnibus that I got a few weeks back; sketching out some ideas for future blog posts; thinking about some maths stuff; visiting Manchester; reading Altered Carbon; painting.

I haven't painted for a long time, I have this thing about not wanting to start something until I know what it is that I'm going to be doing. Does that make sense? For example, I want to be able to see the full painting in my mind's eye before I pick up the brush, even if (and really, there's no if about it) the reality is that I am not as good a painter as I would like to be. Similarly in maths, I don't like to try showing something unless I have some idea (usually a gut feeling) that it is true.

But anyway, I've got off topic. It used to be that the Friday feeling was this "Yes! I'm away from work for a few days!" sensation, but lately it's become this "Well, I'll be back in the office on Monday so what's the point?" feeling. I don't know when it changed or what it means, but there we go.

Actually, having typed all that I feel a bit more positive about the weekend, as if writing about the possibilities for what I could do have already made Saturday and Sunday feel like a more worthwhile proposition.

Blogging: informative and therapeutic.

So-called "Experts"

So-called experts say some stupid things. I've just been reading this article, in which Akbar Ahmed, "one of the world's leading authorities on Islam", sets out the ways in which the West and Islam can "overcome the huge chasm" that exists between them. In his mind, it's all about education for both sides - overcoming ignorance and fear and learning to work together.

All very unobjectionable stuff, but he then goes on to make the bizarre statement that "It's not just 9/11. It started in the 19th century when the first clashes between the west and Islam took place" [emphasis added].

Yeah, I didn't think I'd read it correctly, either. The 19th Century. Has "one of the world's leading authorities on Islam" never heard about the Crusades? The Reconquista? The Battle of Tours? Does he really think that the first clashes between the West and Islam were a mere hundred and fifty years ago?

Very strange; Akbar obviously knows that he's misrepresenting the truth with that statement, because he can't possible believe it's true, but in which case, why lie? You would think that, when calling for greater education about a subject, you wouldn't tell obvious mistruths about it from the other side of your mouth.

I wish I had greater insight into why he said what he did, but The Guardian article doesn't shed any more light. It's just...odd. Why pretend that the West and Islam didn't clash until the 19th century? Is he engaged in revisionism; trying to make us forget that Muslims once aimed to take over the world? Or is he trying to make us think that the West, once upon a time, looked on Islam as a busom buddy, and can do so again in the future?

It reminds me that most "experts", especially the ones who appear on TV and in newspaper articles, don't really have much more authority to comment on a given subject than you or me. Best to ignore them, I think, and make up one's own mind.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Huck, Jim and The River

"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn... There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."

Hemingway apparently said this. As mentioned previously, I've decided to read some older books that perhaps I have missed out on in the past due to not studying Literature at school. I've heard a few suggestions from people, and shortly after I posted about it noisms loaned me a couple of books.

I still have Moby Dick to read, but I thought that I would start by reading The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, as I remember when I was eight or nine I read some of either Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. I don't remember what I thought about it at the time, and if I'm honest I don't know what I make of it now.

Whenever you read a book that was written some time ago it can be difficult at first to appreciate what people might be talking about, or to relate to their situation. At the end of the day, we are all human though (and I guess not many people pre-20th century wrote about being other than human) so we have that to grab hold of, so it is merely the difference in circumstances that can confuse. For me, in reading Huckleberry Finn, the big thing that astonished me was the attitude to slavery.

OK, I understand that it was written at a different time, but to see Huck thinking and accepting that he will go to hell for helping Jim escape is quite a hard thing to relate to. Did people really think so little of other people? I suppose that despite tabloid headlines and celebrity slip-ups we do like to think that we are living in better times, when racism and prejudice are merely things that happen when we're not careful. It's a lie, you only have to look harder and see the prejudice that is still a very great reality in some parts of the world and in our own societies.

Still, that, for me, was the most shocking attitude in the book, that people could think that way about other people, and that the slaves would seem to just accept it.

It's not that I dislike Huckleberry Finn, actually there is a lot to like about it, although I think some of the episodes in it do go on for longer than is neccessary (the king and the duke long outstayed their welcome in my opinion); the incidents that Twain puts Huck and Jim through are genuinely interesting - and I suppose what surprises me is that after everything they go through on the river and all their trials and tribulations Huck really does think that he is damned for deciding to help Jim, even though Jim has time and again shown him exceptional kindness and true friendship.

(what was also quite amusing is that I was reading noisms annotated copy from whenever he studied the book; running across "V IMPORTANT" and "funniest line ever" in several places was a different way of reading a book)

Part of me thinks that the final few chapters are a little too convenient, too many things suddenly turn out right - Jim's freedom, the fate of Huck's father (one wonders if Miyazaki has ever read Huckleberry Finn) - but in some respects life is just like that, things can seem to be going all wrong and then everything surprises you and comes together.

Part of me yearns for their raft, for just floating down the river. In the same way, I first really longed to travel when I read On The Road - but both Huck and Jim's journey and Kerouac's travelling are closed off to me, they're just not realities any more (unless I'm wrong and someone knows that these sorts of "trips" are still made in America). Still, they make me want to get out there and see more of the world.

I don't know if Hemingway is right or not, and I'm still uncertain about how much I really enjoyed Huck Finn. Saying that, the way that the themes - especially the idea of drifting along the river - have stayed in my mind since I've finished it, I can't help but recommend it if you have never read it. And if you have read it, maybe you should find time to re-read it.

I've just started Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, and after that I'll go on to Moby Dick.

One day, however, I am certain that I will join Huck and Jim on the raft again, and see where the river takes us...

Amiable Frenchmen

I sometimes wonder what the world would have been like had England failed in its attempt at world domination in the 18th and 19th centuries. Portugal, Spain, Holland and France all had their chances to rule the world. Germany, Belgium, Japan and Russia put in some good showings. And that isn't to mention the Third Division of the Colonisation League, comprising Italy, the almost-nowadays-unknown colonial empires of Denmark and Sweden, and complete obscurities like Courland.

The world would have been a more interesting, and richer, place, I think. For starters, the French especially were reknowned for being much more willing to cooperate with Native Americans as equals, and if they'd kept control of Canada and Louisiana we might have seen a very different, more recognisably native North America emerging. India might never have suffered the ignominy of complete subjugation if Britain had not won at Plassey, and a subcontinent that was a mixture of indigenous polities like Mysore, Hyderabad, Jodhpur and Maharashtra, and European-founded city-states like Portuguese Goa, French Pondicherry, British Calcutta, Danish Serampure and Dutch Masulipatam, would now exist. Indigenous Alaskans would worship in Russian Orthodox churches. The world would be an utterly different place.

More importantly, for my purposes, the Australians wouldn't be around to make lousy day-time Soap Operas, because they might very well have been busy speaking French instead - hanging out at pavement cafes, smoking too much, having great sex, and drinking Chateauneuf-de-Pape rather than Castlemaine XXXX. This is because a certain "amiable Frenchman" (as described by Bill Bryson in Down Under) by the endearingly ornate, pre-revolutionary name of Jean-Francois de Galaup, comte de La Perouse, could very well have got there first and claimed Australia for France. As it was he arrived just after the first motley collection of cockney criminals, under Captain Phillip, had started to disembark in Botany Bay. Bryson captures the event rather nicely: "La Perouse's expression when it was explained to him that Phillip and his crew had just sailed 15,000 miles to make a prison for people who had stolen lace and ribbons, some cucumber plants, and a book on Tobago, must have been one of the great looks in history, but alas there is no record of it."

He then goes on to note, drily, that if only La Perouse had arrived a little earlier, he could have saved the continent 200 years of English cooking. Sport lovers among us will be more interested in the fact that it would have saved us English years of humiliation on the cricket pitch, too.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Lemma 1

I'm suffering from some back pain and consequently it is pretty uncomfortable to sit at my desk for long periods. So I decided that I would write a little thing on one of my favourite things in maths, the lemma.

A lemma is a beautiful thing, although there is a bit of a grey area as to what constitutes a lemma and what constitutes a theorem. Both are true statements that are derived from some list of conditions; however, generally people distinguish a lemma from a theorem either by saying that a lemma is a stepping stone on the way to proving a much larger result (and the only reason for writing it down is that it is a useful construction along the way to getting the bigger result), or that a lemma is a true statement but that it is somehow "less important" than other results. Of course, some results are important and useful in the grand scheme of things by what they allow us to do, but I sometimes feel that classifying a result as a lemma because it is somehow worth less than a theorem is a bit sad really.

Recently I've proved my first theorem, i.e., I've taken some initial conditions and results and from that derived a new true statement (previously I've also shown something to be true by finding an example which satisfies certain conditions, but somehow this "proof" feels much less satisfying). A lemma is like a proverb (with the extra condition that a lemma is definitely true): it might not be completely neccessary, but very often knowing it makes life easier.

While it was very satisfying being able to write Theorem and put my name next to it, it was also pretty cool to get several results along the way and write Lemma next to them. In some ways it feels even more satisfying to divine a lemma, because it adds to the richness of the proof that one constructs. By creating a lemma as well it is possible that in future someone will be able to jump a couple of steps in some proof or construction that they are making, because they know that statement X is true due to your ingenuity.

That said, a lemma should have some usefulness. I proved a small result towards the end of last week, and extended it further over the weekend; the initial result and thought was this tiny little step in the big proof I did, but I realised very soon after that there was a much more general thing that one can say about these things. Now, my lemma is a true statement about some area of mathematics (about eigenvalues of eigenvectors of the meridian map in the space of patterns in the Kauffman skein of the annulus!) but at the same time it is unclear as to whether or not it us a useful piece of knowledge.

In one of the Ricky Gervais Show podcasts Ricky tells Karl that "knowledge without application is pointless," a statement that I don't exactly agree with. I take his point (or what I think his point is) but at the same time there is something about mathematics, especially pure mathematics, where you find yourself studying things, divining truths which really don't seem to have any effect on the real world whatsoever, whether the truth is "known" or otherwise. As it stands, I don't know if my lemma is something that someone else is ever going to use, I'm not even certain if it is a piece of maths that I will need in future.

It exists though, and even if I had never taken the time to work through and prove it it would still exist. And if that doesn't satisfy some condition of "importance" I don't know what does.

Here ends the first lemma. I'm going to see if there is anything else I can take for my back pain, because ibuprofen just isn't touching it at all.

Child's Play


You can learn a lot from children's games. I've recently come across this picture, from Embracing Defeat, John Dower's masterful account of Japan during the American occupation:

The children in it are playing panpan asobi ("GI and Prostitute Game"), in which boys and girls would re-enact the scenes they saw everyday - of American GIs parading around town with young Japanese women on their arms, probably on their way to a hotel somewhere.

The game was innocent enough - harmless mimicry like children's play all over the world - and it is notable how happy the kids in the picture look: despite the fact that older Japanese must have been deeply saddened by the spectacle, the game obviously served as a way for those involved to distract themselves from the drudgery of starvation, violence and misery in postwar Japan. The game itself was mixed with other forms of play, like runpen-gokko, in which the participants would pretend to be homeless vagrants, demo-asobi, in which they'd wave red flags like left-wing demonstrators, and, perhaps most bittersweet of all, kaidashi-gokko, "searching-for-food game".

First of all, we have to be careful not to paint the scene in too innocent a way. As Dower notes, "roundups of prostitutes included girls as young as fourteen, while schoolboys...quickly learned how to earn pocket money as pimps by leading GIs to women", he writes, indicating that innocent play often led to not-so-innocent practice as the children got older. But still, the picture leaves me feeling strangely optimistic. It tells me that progress, reform, and rebirth are possible.

There's a lot of angst in Britain these days about the state of the nation's youth, with UNICEF releasing a report placing Britain bottom of the heap in terms of child happiness in industrial countries, and almost daily stories detailing stabbings and gang violence amongst teenagers. But the picture shows that angst up for what it really is - just angst. Children are children, no matter what kind of lives they lead, and if the Japanese were able to mould their half-starved, war-weary, alchohol-addicted, poverty-stricken youth into the kind of people who could literally transform a nation, then I don't see why the British can't. All it takes is for adults to take responsibilty, to stop worrying, and go ahead and do it.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Of Ezekiel Bulver and the New Antisemitism

I'm something of a logical fallacy aficionado; one of my favourites is that of Bulverism, first described by C. S. Lewis, which is based on the imaginary Ezekiel Bulver's sudden revelation, at the age of five, that "refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall." Bulver decided that the simplest way to argue was to avoid dealing with the merits of your opponent's argument, and instead try to explain why they believe what they believe and how silly it is. "That," writes Lewis, "is how Bulver became one of the makers of the twentieth century."

Lewis used the example of the Mona Lisa. Imagine two men arguing over its artistic merits. One loves the painting; the other hates it. "What a beautiful painting!" the first exclaims.
"Ah," says the other, "You only say that because you're an Italian." But I prefer to use the example of the New Antisemitism.

That is, there are some anti-Zionists, particularly on the political left, who will have you believe that Israel's defenders are closet Bulverists. Only the other day, for example, I was listening to Heresy, a radio show that purports to challenge recieved wisdom on anything from organic food to the Bible. On it, a female member of the audience brought up the issue of Israel and said that she "hated the way Israel's supporters accuse you of antisemitism if you're against the existence of Israel. It isn't antisemitism, it's just anti-Zionism." Israel's supporters commit Bulverism, in other words - rather than tackle anti-Zionists' arguments, they just attack their motives instead: You must be antisemitic if you are an anti-Zionist, so you are wrong.

Of course, Bulverism is always a logical fallacy, and it can't be supported. Throwing charges of antisemitism at anti-Zionists is not the correct way to deal with their arguments, which can in fact be dismissed through thoughtful, sensible examination of the facts. But that is not to say that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are not always the same thing. In fact they often are.

The All Parliamentary Inquiry in Antisemitism recently released a report on this, noting the disturbing trend on the far left to "[mask or blend antisemitism] into anti-Zionism, [and articulate it] in the language of human rights" (para. 158). Certain examples are linked in a previous post in this blog, and include powerful student leaders who accuse Israel of being the number one human rights violator in the world and single the country out for other, general approbration, despite its exemplary record when compared to most other countries in the world. What other conclusions can we draw, for example, when academics call for boycotts of Israeli universities but continue to happily fraternize with members of institutions in Syria, Iran, Indonesia or Vietnam, than that those academics are choosing "the Jew amongst nations" for special criticism?

The report also confirmed that "alliances between extremist and fundamentalist groups have created links between groups on the far left and radical Islamists" (para. 166), that Ken Livingstone, the left wing Mayor of London, has ties with Sheikh Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, "a controversial Muslim cleric who has reportedly forbidden Muslims from engaging in dialogue of any kind with Jews" (para. 167) and that the Respect Party, Gorgeous George Galloway's extreme-left mouthpiece, is a platform for both anti-Zionism and antisemitism (para. 168). (Galloway, in fact, is a prime nut - a man who believes that Hezbollah is not a terrorist organization, that Jews are foreigners in Jerusalem, and that Jews control - guess what - the media.) The report concludes that academic boycotts of Israel on the part of left-wing university staff "are an assault on academic freedom and intellectual exchange" (para. 213), that Jewish students "feel disproportionately threatened in British universities as a result of antisemitic activities" (para. 219), and, finally, that "while many have pointed out that criticism of Israel or Zionism is not necessarily antisemitic the converse is also true: it is never acceptable to mask hurtful racial generalisations by claiming the right to legitemate political discourse" (para. 180).

Bulverism should always be dissuaded, then, but accusations of it should not serve to mask the reality - that anti-Zionism and antisemitism can be, and often are, inextricably linked.

What's In A Name?

What is a "cognitive blindspot" you might ask? There's no Wikipedia entry on it, and that surprised me I have to admit. If you search in Google for the exact phrase (like here) then we are now the top result for that, which is kind of nice (until you notice that there are only 38 hits in total), but if you just search more generally it does come up more (we're still in the top ten though, which is pretty good for over 100,000 hits).

I first came across the term when I was studying Philosophy of Mind as an undergraduate, and my professor explained it as something that is beyond your comprehension in some sense. Say that there is an object that exists inside the collective cognitive blindspot, for argument's sake let it be a big pink cube that just hovers in the sky above London. Because it is in a cognitive blindspot you cannot perceive it with any of your senses, and to all intents and purposes for you it does not exist even though in objective reality it does.

(one similar idea that I think draws a nice parallel is the concept in Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex of someone having their eyes hacked; in this case they are aware that their is someone there but they cannot see them - the person is not invisible but the information of their location is removed from the viewer's optic nerve or brain)

So why did we choose this name for our blog? In the end, after some deliberation it seemed like the best thing we could come up with. We tried so many different names, but they were all taken. At first we just wanted a name that was going to be relatively easy to remember, and the name of the band that we were briefly in during high school ("Nocturnal Emission") seemed like a good enough name but it was already taken.

Then we decided to go along some kind of pop culture route, and for a time we tried several variations all involving Chewbacca, but nothing seemed to stick. Finally I remembered this concept that my philosophy professor had mentioned and had really made an impression on me. There are many things that people choose to ignore, an abundance of selective cognitive blindspots, and I think that we all have a duty to try and highlight those things that others are missing or choosing to deny.

And sometimes we just need to talk about rubbish as well, which is this blog's other function. I'll probably start doing that in my next post.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Of Gods, Spaghetti Monsters, and Ham Sandwiches

I heard a programme on the radio recently about a museum, just opened in Kentucky, which is devoted to a creationist view of history; according to its owners, for example, dinosaurs lived in the time of Noah and made full use of the Ark. This is all part of what might be loosely termed the 'creationist fightback'; a movement to put intelligent design on an equal footing with 'real science'.

This coincides with my recent re-reading of Daniel Dennett's book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, an ultra-Darwinist tract whose central thesis is that everything, including such ethereals as human culture or consciousness, has at its base the 'algorithm' of Natural Selection. In it, Dennett devotes considerable space and time to demolishing intelligent design. Noting that the standard theories of how the universe came to existence (that, for example, there was a 'singularity' which suddenly expanded; or that the universe continually expands and contracts), do not provide satisfactory explanations, nor disprove God as creator, he comes up with a way to dissuade us from the belief that God was behind the 'Big Bang'. Using the example of a tennis match, he imagines a dialogue between a creationist and an atheist.

"The universe came from the big bang," says the atheist, serving.

"Ah, but what created the materials for the big bang, and what set it off?" the creationist replies, returning. "That must have been God!"

"There's no proof for that," says the atheist, hitting a backhand. "Even if it was God, what created him? You might as well just say that a giant ham sandwich set off the big bang, and have done with it."

The ball is now firmly in the creationist's court, according to Dennett.

The problem, of course, and the one that Dennett neatly skates over, is that neither position can be proved - and that neither makes any real sense. Either God exists (in which case he has existed for ever) or he doesn't (in which case the universe sprang literally from nothing). Both assertions lead to absurd conclusions. The perfect return for the creationist, coming into the net for a forehand volley, would be: "Yes, and people are free to believe in a ham sandwich, just as I'm free to believe in God, but you then also have to admit that whether people believe in God, a ham sandwich, a giant flying spaghetti monster, or for that matter a quantum singularity (or whatever), the point is that they are believing something. Atheism is founded on faith just as much as theism is."

It seems to me that Christians (theists in general, in fact), don't use this fact to their advantage as much as they should. That is, the central point of all religion is faith; faith that God exists and cares about human affairs even in the face of overwhelming evidence that he doesn't. It's the key theme of the entire Christian bible, from Job to Exodus to the Pslams to Hebrews. Where then does this insistence on competing with scientists on their own terms come from, when it can be easily demonstrated that scientists base their views as much on an article of faith (that the materials making up the universe sprang from a singularity, or are part of an eternally contracting and expanding reality) as do Christians? Why try to prove or disprove things that logically can't be proved, when you could be concentrating on your supposed fortes of faith, hope and love instead (the merits of which are far more likely to win converts than the absurd chasing of an illogical, impossible dream)?

Neither theism nor atheism have anything to recommend them, particularly, in terms of logic. But Christians must surely believe that their faith does have something to recommend it as a way of life, and that is what they should be concentrating on: promoting the way of life, rather than harping on about Noah and the dinosaurs.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Hurting People's Feelings

Salman Rushdie, the famous British-Indian novelist, was appointed to be a Knight Bachelor last week - as you're perhaps aware. You're also probably aware that there is an ongoing fatwa against Rushdie, issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, because he wrote a naughty book called The Satanic Verses which satirised Islam; the decision to bestow a knighthood on him has therefore caused quite a fuss in certain circles.

The reaction is absurd, of course, and only serves to demonstrate that there is a small section of the Muslim world that has clearly lost the plot - the Pakistan Ulema council, for example, has decided that in retaliation it is bestowing the title of Saifullah, or Sword of Islam on Osama bin Laden, because "if a blashphemer can be given the title 'Sir'...despite the fact that he's hurt the feelings of Muslims, then a mujahid who has been fighting for Islam must be given the lofty title of...Saifullah". That's right: Britain has hurt their feelings (the poor little lambs), perhaps as badly as if we'd stolen their lunch money, or spilt their milk, and so the only sensible reaction is for them to honour a murderous, psychopathic thug who relishes the deaths of Westerners in general and British/Americans in particular. It seems a tad disproportionate, but who are we to question the Ulema council? After all, cultural relativism, who are we to judge, etc, blah de blah.

Now it seems that Pakistan's National Assembly has unanimously condemned the awarding of the honour, with Religious Affairs Minisiter Ejaz-ul-Haq arguing that suicide bombings in Britain are now justified, and that "if Britain does not withdraw [the knighthood], all Muslim countries should break off diplomatic relations". Fair enough, but one has to wonder whether Mr. ul-Haq is also advocating breaking off relations to the extent that Pakistan, for example, might turn down all the aid money that Britain supplies it with. One suspects not; funny how you can usually tell with these things.

You would expect that sort reaction from hardliners like the Ulema council and Ejaz-ul-Haq, and I'm not particularly worried about it. Worse is that of people like Lord Ahmed, a Labour peer (who has said that the knighthood should be put
"on hold"), seem all too willing to pander to them. Encouraging hissy fits - and, worse, backing down to people who are willing to countenance suicide bombings and the indiscriminate murder of civilians - is obviously, palpably wrong, and it worries me that peers (who by their nature are supposed to be sensible, educated people) should be so simultaneously stupid and spineless.

Personally, I've never liked Salman Rushdie, and I think he's a bad writer who courts controversy to sell books. I also dislike the current tendency among the British literary elites to honour authors just because they're from a developing country and write novels with themes that happen to tie into the particular angst of the moment. For that reason, I'm not particularly happy that the man is now a Knight of the Realm. But it's our decision who we award knighthoods to, not Pakistan's, and no amount of browbeating and hysterical overreaction should dissuade us from that. And if Pakistan really wants to cut off diplomatic relations with Britain, it should have the guts to carry that threat through to its sensible conclusion and hand back our aid money. We're happy to give it, and in some sense obligated, but nobody's got a gun to your head.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

General Malaise

I started watching House recently, and while I don't want to say that it is the best show in the world ever (as one British newspaper has) it is pretty good. Watching Hugh Laurie as Gregory House is a revelation, and also a little weird. To most people in Britain I guess he was more commonly known 'til now as one half of the comedy duo "Fry and Laurie", or as "that posh one from Blackadder Goes Forth.

It is really strange to see him with an American accent, as I've said to people recently since I've started watching the show, it's liking watching an American guy who just happens to look like Hugh Laurie. However, as good as House is, I don't want to talk about the show exactly, but rather one recurring concept that the show (according to Wikipedia) has popularised a lot recently - and also think about how it might apply to me.

Differential diagnosis is the term that recurs frequently in House, where they list the symptoms and state of a patient in order to figure out what is wrong with them. They arrive at a working hypothesis and try to treat for whatever that condition is, and because that first diagnosis is rarely correct they then have to take into account other factors (which often seem conflicting) in order to arrive at the correct diagnosis and treatment about five to seven minutes before the end of the episode.

This is a term that (according to Wiki) has only really entered the public consciousness thanks to House. It's so simple and astounding you would think that it would be on our mind all the time when trying to evaluate problems; maybe it is and I've just never realised it before, maybe people use similar processes consciously all the time but somehow that just doesn't click when I think about it. Look at what is happening, think clearly about all of the effects and then try to understand what the cause might be. I think far too often people see an effect and then try to figure out a cause and in so doing miss out many of the other effects ("symptoms") which could otherwise have helped them figure out what the problem really was.

However, I don't really want to talk about that, I just had to write all of that in order to get to the real crux of it all. What's the differential diagnosis of a 26 year old male in reasonably good health who presents with these symptoms?

1). general tiredness and apathy towards work despite eight to nine hours of sleep
2). recurring dreams about travelling
3). sudden upswing in the number of books read per week (three novels in four days)
4). minor panic attacks at the thought of change in the near future
5). inability to figure out what he wants from life

What's the diagnosis and what treatment would you prescribe?

I'm going to watch some more House and see if I can get some more inspiration. If I notice any more symptoms in the patient I'll let you know.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Against Silliness

I've realised recently that the majority of my opinions about current events are influenced to a large degree by the principle that, the more hysterical and overinflated the claims of one 'side' of a given argument are, the less likely I am to agree with them - no matter what their argument is.

The best example of this is the Israel-Palestine debate. Now, I'm reasonably aware that both parties to that struggle have legitemate grievances and concerns, and that without compromise on either side there can be no solution to the conflict. But the hyperbolic accusations of the pro-Palestinian cause - that Israel is based on a
system of apartheid; that Israel has committed genocide against Palestinians; that Israel's government is like the Nazi party; and that "Israel is the worst human rights violator in the world", have served in the past year or so to considerably sway my opinion against the Palestinian cause and toward Israel, whose supporters don't resort to such (frankly) silliness, and who comport themselves in a generally reasonable and responsible way - that is, without bandying about wild, patently untrue accusations.

Likewise, while my politics could be defined as broadly centrist and I find myself therefore disliking the policies of President Bush, I'm so sick of hearing talentless comedians making jokes about how stupid he is on the BBC that I've come to dislike his detractors even more. Personal attacks, especially obviously false ones - Bush might be inarticulate, but he's no fool - make me immediately hostile towards those using them; because if that's what you have to resort to, it's more than likely an admission that you don't have much else to say. "Bush is so stupid! Bwahahaha!" Yes, but what are your ideas about how to make the world a better place, again? More importantly, because you think he's stupid, does that mean you think that the millions of people who voted for him are stupid too? If so, what are the implications for your view of the democratic process?

And there's global warming too. I would describe myself as an environmentalist, and I regularly make contributions to Greenpeace. I believe that the most important task facing mankind today is how we can generate wealth in the developing world without impacting negatively on the environment, and how we can create sustainable fishing and forestry industries. But I'm tired of hearing about how global warming will spell the
end for polar bears (who are highly adaptable, and lived in Greenland when the temperature there was considerably warmer than it is today), how it will destroy fish stocks (when the truth is much more complicated), and how it is responsible for the disappearance of British songbirds (when all reliable reports indicate that increased temperatures have led to greater berry growth in woodland, tempting songbirds away from gardens and actually leading to a large, sustained increase in their numbers) - especially when those animals and environments are under greater threat from direct human interference in the form of hunting, overuse, or habitat destruction. Global warming might be a legitemate fear and it might well require of us drastic measures to deal with it, but its cause is not served, as far as I'm concerned, by falsehoods and bombast, which can only damage the veracity of genuine calls for greater environmental protection.

Of course, I usually make my mind up on such issues based on the balance of probabilities - even though I dislike Bush's detractors, I also usually disagree with his policies; even though I detest the global warming bandwagon, I recognise that it is scientific reality and that it has to be tackled; even though I loathe the pro-Palestinian propaganda machine, the real reason I support Israel is because I've examined the facts. But I really, really wish that people would be sensible about these matters, without feeling they have to resort to shrill, sanctimonious blather. Hurled accusations are the last resort of the intellectually impoverished, and contribute nothing to constructive debate.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Lord of the Flies

I finished Lord Of The Flies yesterday evening, after starting it the day before. I wanted to take English Literature at A Level, but it clashed with nearly every lesson of maths that I would have had, and since I wanted to do maths at university it pretty much ruled out my taking it. Recently I've started to read (along with the usual sci-fi books that I would normally go for) all of the sorts of books that I never got to read at A Level. Things like Catch-22, Pride & Prejudice, Emma... Well, OK, so basically a couple of 20th century classics and some Jane Austen, but it's a start right?

As I was reading it I couldn't help but wonder if perhaps there were hints that Lord Of The Flies was a little bit sci-fi itself... The vague talk of war, the brief mentions of nuclear weapon use and the manner in which the boys arrive on the island (after being shipped somewhere in some kind of airplane), not to mention the description of how the parachutist arrives on the island. Kind of feels like an alternate 1950s, you know?

It doesn't help that we don't really have much of a clue as to what their home lives are like. Some of them mention that their parents are involved in the war somehow, but none really seem to give any indication as to what it is all about. After consulting the Wiki article, which focuses on the symbolism and interpretation of the story and not the setting, I'm not really any the wiser as to where these boys came from.

Knowing where they came from isn't really essential to the enjoyment that the story gives or the thoughts that it provokes; a few language things aside, it could be a story that is more or less set today. How would a group of school children today cope if they suddenly found themselves marooned on a deserted island without adult supervision?

My predictions:
1). They would be nowhere near as successful as Jack, Roger etc at hunting, primarily because many of them would have childhood obesity problems (more severe than Piggy even).
2). It would take drastically less time for them to descend to the level of "savagery" than it does for the boys in the book.
3). Half of them would wonder why their mobile phones didn't work, whilst the other half would wonder where the reality TV cameras were.
4). The fire that scorches a good portion of the island would be done intentionally by some tough little eleven year olds with ASBOs.

I've got a stack of books on my table to read now, but none of them are probably on the UK "English Lit A Level syllabus". If you have any suggestions for books that most likely are and that I should read, please drop me a line.

I'm currently reading "JPod" by Douglas Coupland.

Lyrebirds and Suchlike

In the woods of Southern Australia there lives an animal called the Lyrebird, a large songbird with an extraordinary ability to mimic sounds. It generally does this in order to attract mates, which it does by putting on a show on a little staging platform in the forest, dancing around and imitating the calls of all the other birds around it. (Why the female should find this ability attractive is a mystery; it is probably to do with the principle of positive feedback loops in sexual selection, whereby a slight, random female preference for an aspect of male morphology grows exponentially as the genes for the preference and the morphology become linked; the behaviour becomes steadily more attractive because it is attrative.)

In recent times, though, the bird has taken to imitating not only other bird calls, but also sounds produced by humans - such as camera clicks, chainsaws, car alarms, car engines and rifle shots. It does this with uncanny accuracy, intertwining such sounds seamlessly into its song.

The bird's ability is, I think, by turns charming and horrifying, and in its own way a strange commentary on the modern world, in which we could say that the "sounds of the forest" as we traditionally understand them - bird song, the wind rustling through leaves, the movement of small animals in leaf litter - are only as much a part of life in the average forest as are the noises of chainsaws, rifleshots and car alarms; human development and overt influence now permeates the world to a degree which must have been inconcievable even a century ago. I've never subscribed to the view that indigenous peoples left their environments basically untouched (even the most 'primitive' societies manipulated forest fire and seed dispersal to their own advantage) but even so, it cannot be argued that our time has brought anything less than an astonishing level of human presence and human technology throughout the world.

It makes me wonder about global warming. I've often thought that the global warming bandwagon serves to distract people from other, perhaps more pressing, environmental concerns, and that it's important to note that, while climate change may threaten certain ecologies in the long term, in the short term far more pressure is being placed on the natural world by basic, old fashioned human expansionism - and we shouldn't let ourselves off the hook in that regard by focusing all of our energies on the bluff and bluster of the lobbying surrounding global warming.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Back to basics

My problem with when we started this blog a month back is that I was overthinking things, trying to write things that I was sure other people would want to read. That's a mistake I think, so I've decided to just try and write something that is on my mind, or about something that I have seen that I want to comment on.

Time to step it up a gear. Too many weeks without writing - well, I was away for one of them, but I don't know what noisms excuse is - and now I sit here having made an agreement with him that I will write something every weekday for the next few months, so that we build up a great swathe of interesting things.

He is supposed to do the same, so we'll see what happens.

We both became Facebook members in the last week or so. What a curious thing social networking via the internet is... That probably makes me sound slightly strange when I say that, but looking back when I started using the internet seven or eight years ago there really wasn't anything like Facebook or myspace out there. The internet (back then) was all about basically showcasing content of one form or another (and porn, let's not forget that) in some way.

Sure, you had your dating sites, and you had your forums that you were a member of, but there was nothing quite like the idea of what Facebook is. I'm still trying to decide if it is a good thing or not. For example, someone that I know, let's for politeness sake call them an acquaintance, added me as a friend. They don't have my phone number, they have my email but never write to me and I never write to them, they're just somebody that I have met. Whenever I see them we say hello and are polite, but they are by no means what I would think of as a friend.

In real life if you don't talk to someone for a while then you just naturally drift apart, but on Facebook it feels rude not to accept adds even if have no intention of talking to someone. Another site that I am a member of, but which is not social networking just a forum, has this concept of friends/contacts, and you have to accept people trying to add you as a friend. The difference there is that random people just try to add you as a result of a post you might make, without ever talking to you. In that situation I don't feel bad at all about not accepting a friend request.

With Facebook being what it is though - since these are people who in some sense know you - I don't know... Is it rude to decline someone wanting to add me if we are barely acquainted? In "real life" we are not friends. Why should I add them?

And yet I did.