30 January, 2007

Kinda Fonda Jane

I was a boy the last time Jane Fonda spoke at an anti-war rally. Back in the early 1970s, the star of Barbarella and Klute became known to her detractors as ‘Hanoi Jane’, not just for her outspoken opposition to the Vietnam war but for the much less forgivable sin of supporting the communist regime in North Vietnam, and the cause of communism in general. Just a decade or two earlier, she would have been in serious trouble but by the late sixties and early seventies, things had changed and there was a lot more freedom of speech in the US.

I barely noticed Ms Fonda’s antics at the time – I was too busy messing up my own young life – yet it was with an odd sense of déjà vu that I saw her in the papers again earlier this week addressing another anti-war rally in the States. This time she and tens of thousands of others were protesting against the invasion and occupation of Iraq. (And doesn’t that just show how much the climate of opinion has changed over there? At least, until the next terrorist attack.)

It normally upsets me to see ‘celebrities’ spouting off about this and that. On the whole, they are far too stupid to hold opinions about anything and only embarrass everyone when they espouse them. But in some cases, I’ll make an exception – and Jane Fonda is one of them. She has always come across as someone who really does care about what’s going on in the world and, however misled by enthusiasm, ignorance or naïveté – as she has often seemed to be – her heart has always been in the right place. What’s more, she has consistently and doggedly supported serious and worthwhile causes for forty years now. As she put it at the rally, ‘I'm so sad that we still have to do this.’ It’s no wonder her stand is getting so much support.

Good on ya, Jane! Nice to see you back.

28 January, 2007

Happy Birthday Lewis Carroll !

From the blog 'Out came one thought and then another…' is a reminder that last Friday was Lewis Carroll’s 175th birthday. And there was I trying to avoid “Australia Day’ last Friday when all the time there was something really worthwhile to celebrate. Next “Australia Day” I promise I’ll raise a glass to the old paedophile. (And I keep writing “Australia Day” in quotes because it is obviously one of those “days” that were dreamed up by a marketing consultant. Of course, that doesn’t stop a certain element among the Aussies from going out partying on the strength of it. You could declare “Dead Budgie Day” and this lot would go out and dance in fountains with flags round them and a stubbie in each hand – and stuffed budgies tied to their heads just to show they weren’t being gratuitously venal.)

The interesting thing about 'Out came one thought and then another…' is that I’d never have known it existed if it hadn’t mentioned my own blog in one of its posts. In fact, it is one of the more fascinating side effects of blogging that strangers read your maunderings and comment on them. This is what led me to Three Beautiful Things a while ago and set me reading The Japing Ape the other day.

The Japing Ape is a blog written by a gorilla. At least, that what the author’s profile says. Whoever this guy is, he maintains the fiction religiously. Each post is written as if by a gorilla. (Hey, maybe I need a gimmck like that! Do you think I could pass as a cane toad?) It’s pretty amusing stuff too – if you like your blogs whacky, bordering on completely insane. He specialises in imaginary conversations between himself (a gorilla) and various characters from real life or elsewhere. I was amazed to discover a rather naughty conversation between Lady Penelope and her chauffeur Parker. The characters are, of course, from Thunderbirds and the dialogue is so wooden, you could really imagine it coming from the brains of puppets.

Silly stuff but I like to discover such oddities now and then. It is one of the great pleasures of the Web.

27 January, 2007

Time On My Hands

If you wanted to create a way of measuring time for use all over the Galaxy but which still had units that would be useful to ordinary people, you could do worse than to base it on the orbital period of our sun around the galactic centre.

For those of you who haven’t noticed this giddifying fact, our sun – and all the stars in the Galaxy – are orbiting the galactic core at a phenomenal speed. We do a whole revolution (about 150,000 light years) in close to 250 million years. And, of course, 250 million years is a very big number. We’d only have been able to do about 55 orbits since the Universe began! Let’s call this unit one ‘grot’ (short for galactic rotation).

So, with the grot as our basic time unit, the Universe is 55 grots old. Our own solar system is about 18 grots old. The human race would be about half a milligrot. Of course, we can’t talk in milligrots – that would be silly – so let’s define a new unit. If we divide a grot by 200,000,000, we get a period that is 1.25 years long. This is a nice manageable length of time – close enough to a year to make sense to us but far enough from a year so that we don’t look too parochial to our galactic neighbours. We could call this a ‘yaaq’ (remember, there are two hundred million yaaqs to the grot.)

If you divide a yaaq by 10 and keep dividing the result by 10 you get a whole series of useful units corresponding to something like a month-and-a-half, three-quarters of a week, a bit less than half a day, just over one hour, two-thirds of a minute, and just under four seconds.

Only the scientists and sportsmen among us need go any lower than this last unit, which we would probably want to call a ‘jufs’. ("Just a jufs, mate!" we'd say when our extraterrestrial chums came calling.)

Now you try and tell me that doesn’t make sense!

26 January, 2007

Why are we conscious?

It’s a serious question. Evolution doesn’t waste our time building elaborate cognitive equipment that has no survival benefits. So why do we have it? Most animals seem to manage perfectly well without it – or at least with such tiny amounts that it barely warrants the name. Even the other great apes don’t seem to have much of it, not in comparison to us.

So many books have been written on this topic in the past few years and so many academic papers, that I’ll assume you know most of the arguments. It is now flavour of the month in psychology, neurophysiology and philosophy. (It’s something that Wifie and I often talk about since her rattlesnake encounter more than a decade ago.) Yet for all the millions of words being written, no-one seems to have any idea what consciousness is for. The best that people have come up with is that it is some kind of illusion the brain creates for us to give us continuity of identity. This kind of ‘explanation’ just begs so many questions that it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

I read an article by the philosopher John Searle last week on the subject of free will. Searle has never impressed me but he’s very famous for being controversial about artificial intelligence. However, it got me wondering yet again about why we’re conscious. And then, in a flash, it hit me.

Like everyone else, for all these years, I had been asking the wrong question. The question isn’t ‘why am I self-aware?’ but ‘why am I aware of the world?’ The answer seems obvious at first. It is so that I can interact with the world – to get food and shelter and mates. What’s more, all the other animals – even my shiftless cat, Yuli – must have a similar awareness to mine. I know this because they too manage to find food, shelter and mates, and do a pretty good job of it. So what is special about my awareness? What have I got that they don’t?

What it is, is that my awareness of the world has a causal model built into it. I not only see the leaves falling but I know there are reasons why they fall. I not only see the birds arriving, I know they are here to bathe in our bird-bath. In fact, I can create long, elaborate causal chains that link this moment to many other moments in the past and the future and I can reason about them. I can guide my behaviour by reasoning about causality. That is what consciousness is all about. It is a special kind of awareness of the world that provides a model that includes causality and agency, and that I can reason about.

Of course, this gives me a huge advantage: well worth the extra cost of supporting all those energy-hungry brain mechanisms. And it explains so much that is currently a mystery. It explains what consciousness is and what it is for. It explains why I have the capacity to do linear, propositional reasoning (something that does not come at all easily to a neural network such as a brain). It explains why this kind of intelligence gives us such an evolutionary advantage. Most importantly, it explains why I have self-awareness – because my own behaviour is there in the world too and it has to be fitted into the bigger picture I am modelling. What better way to explain my actions that to postulate an ‘I’ that does things for its own reasons? What better way to explain my own actions than to extend my conscious awareness to my own internal thoughts and feelings? After all, the basic mechanism for awareness of internal activity is already, necessarily, in place in order for me to be able to reason about awareness at all.

It even explains my sense of having free will. Briefly, as Searle points out, for us to believe we have free will, there must be an experience of a ‘causal gap’ in the chain of thought that leads to our decisions – otherwise our decisions have obviously been caused by our reasoning and are not ‘free’. However, our consciousness is very, very limited. Only the merest glimpse of what goes on in the rest of our brain – which uses a kind of processing completely and utterly different from the way conscious thought proceeds – is afforded to our self-awareness. The thoughts and feelings we become aware of in ourselves are treated as premises or primitive facts by our consciousness. Pieces of knowledge, decisions, emotions, urges to action, just pop into our awareness fully-formed by the rest of the brain and our consciousness then needs to make them fit into its causal models. No wonder the mind confabulates (another thing this explains) and no wonder our will seems free.

I’m glad I’ve finally understood what it is all about. However, I don’t look forward to reading all the half-baked ideas about it that will still continue to be published until someone else with a much higher profile than me works it out too.

(I am also obliged to point out – on pain of dire and prolonged suffering – that Wifie knew it was something like this all along and just hadn’t put it into word so clearly, that’s all.)

25 January, 2007

Watch My Lips: Tom Cruise is the Beautiful One

I used to have an email pen-pal in the US with whom I got on famously. We exchanged dozens, probably hundreds of emails over a period of a couple of years. But, in the end, I managed to upset her and, these days, we don’t write at all. Haven’t done for many years now.

When I first knew her, she was a struggling writer, doing her first book. Later on, she did a PhD on racism and became an anthropologist. Now she spends her time among the primitive peoples of the South Pacific. (By primitive, I mean people who are not well-educated enough to tell anthropologists to get lost when they turn up with their big smiles and video cameras.)

It was the PhD that was the final straw. We’d already had a small falling out over the idea that ‘big is beautiful’. She used to get involved with various trendy causes and fell in with this bunch of women who had decided that being slim was just another form of oppression and were telling themselves that being fat was beautiful. While I couldn’t help agreeing about the oppression thing, I really could not go along with the idea that being fat was in any way beautiful. Perhaps her fat ladies were beautiful ‘on the inside’ but that isn’t what they were saying. I asked her to check whether they had posters of John Goodman in their bedrooms rather than of Tom Cruise. If not, they were just kidding themselves.

In the end, we agreed to differ. Then she told me her PhD thesis was about how racism is completely learned and not at all innate. With a sigh, I told her she was off her rocker (as politely as I could). I’m sure it is a lovely idea that we could all just be brought up differently and there would be no more racism in the world but I’m afraid it won’t do. If anything, it is tolerance that has to be learned. Racism is as natural as fear and loathing.

There seem to be very strong impulses in all animals to prefer your own group and to be fearful of and antagonistic towards all other groups. There seems to be a natural tendency to fear or be revolted by differences that mark people apart from your own group – differences that might be physical (skin colour or deformities) or behavioural (foreign accents, mental illness, unusual sexual preferences). Of course, you learn as you grow up what your group is – what is normal and safe – but the idea that everyone else should be shunned and kept well away is there in the way our brains are wired.

Now don’t get me wrong. I think that racism, like all kinds of prejudice, is something we’d be better off without. But you don’t get rid of it with wishful thinking. You need to understand what is causing it first. Otherwise whatever steps you take are likely to be the wrong ones.

Sadly, after a brief exchange on the subject, my chum’s emails stopped coming: which was a shame because I’d really enjoyed our correspondence up till then. I read her papers on the Web from time to time but it’s not the same.

She got her PhD of course – so at least a couple of other people must have agreed with her.

23 January, 2007

A Cure For Cancer

New research suggests that cancerous cells have an odd way of metabolising sugars. They turn off their mitochondria (the little organelles within cells that would normally do the job) and use another process called glycolysis. Since it is the mitochondria which control apoptosis in cells (a self-destruct mechanism which is triggered when a cell is malfunctioning) the cancer cells go on living – and multiplying – despite being defective. So a drug that could turn the mitochondria back on in cancer cells would be great news because then apoptosis would kick in and kill the cancer.

Well, the drug exists. And it is cheap to produce. It is called dichloroacetate (DCA) and – in the lab at least – it is effective against almost all cancers. (Check this blog posting for more background and a small caveat.) Yet the pharmaceutical companies are not rushing to do the trials and get it into production. In fact, they have no interest at all – because DCA was not patented and therefore there would be no monopoly on it and therefore no big bucks to be made. Any work on the drug will have to be funded by research grants and charities.

Sometimes the stupidity, the callousness, the sheer inhumanity of the world we have made for ourselves is shocking. Stories like this one tempt us to rail against the greed and cruelty of the big pharmaceutical companies. They have the resources to bring this drug to market faster than anyone else, yet they will stand by and let people die rather than lose money by doing so.

But the problem is not the wicked pharmaceutical companies, it is the capitalist system under which they operate. The directors of these corporations are required by law to optimise the return on investment of their shareholders, balancing costs against short- and long-term returns. Spending a company’s time and money on developing a wonder-drug to cure cancer, knowing that there would be very little return to the shareholders would be a criminal offence. The directors of the company can do nothing about this even if they wanted to.

Or could they?

Of course, they can invest tens of millions in sports stadiums and racing yacht sponsorships, but that’s marketing and will allegedly improve profits. Supposedly, it raises the company’s profile and improves its public image to have its name on a formula 1 racing car, or a footballer’s shirt. Obviously curing cancer isn’t considered good enough publicity. Or is it just that the senior execs wouldn’t get to watch the game from their corporate boxes if the marketing budget was blown on worthwhile things instead of sports sponsorships?

22 January, 2007

Calling All Anthropologists

What I need is an army of PhD students. I’m always noticing weird bits of human behaviour that I’d love to have investigated. Take the following, for example.

One of the odd side-effects of being retired is that I spend more time in shopping malls, since now I go with Wifie to do the weekly shopping trips. At least this gives me a chance to feed my cappuccino addiction without having to buy a new espresso machine.

As I sat there sipping the other day, a woman, standing in line for a bank cash dispenser some way off, began stroking her left buttock. Now, you might imagine I’d spray a mouthful of coffee all over the place and goggle like a loon at this bizarrely casual, autoerotic behaviour in a public place but no, I observed it quite nonchalantly. For, you see, I’ve seen the same thing many, many times before.

I first noticed it at a local fair in my home town when I was a teenager at university. A woman at a stall, whose bottom I had been admiring, suddenly began fondling the object of my interest. If I’d had a mouthful of coffee that day, I may well have splattered the passers-by, so amazed was I. Fortunately for all around me, I didn’t really discover good coffee for many years more.

But then I began to notice it. Women walking in the street, standing talking to chums, queuing in a shop, in fact, women everywhere, doing just about anything, will, from time to time, reach behind them and stroke their own bottoms. It happens in the UK, all over Europe, and here in Australia. I can’t remember seeing it in the USA or Asia and I’ve never been to Africa but I see it so often and it is done so unselfconsciously that I’m willing to bet it’s a universal phenomenon.

What are they doing? I have no idea. They are not straightening or smoothing their clothing. The movement is not at all businesslike or purposeful, it is a slow, gentle caress. They are tenderly feeling or stroking themselves. It doesn’t look as if there is a particularly sexual intent but it definitely seems sensual, as if it must be pleasurable – or at least comforting.

So, if there is a PhD student out there looking for a thesis topic – an anthropologist, say, or a psychologist – you should definitely look into this. Why do women stroke their own bottoms in public? As a title for a thesis it is bound to attract loads of press attention and there would certainly be a book in it for you, with TV and radio interviews, and a guest spot on Oprah no doubt. It would be a great start to your career. Just drop me a line if you need help with the field work.

20 January, 2007

Careless Talk

Did you know that, when two people are in conversation with one another, they tend to align their vocabularies? Not just that but they also align their grammar. Well, they say you get to be like them you live with, but it turns out that you also get to talk like them you talk to. This is all according to some research I was reading in The Psychologist today.

It’s all very worrying, these unconscious processes that change the way we are. In fact, knowing who we are seems an almost impossible job with all this stuff going on (you know, confabulation, false memories, that kind of thing).

That’s why, having just read this research report, and being rather sensitive to what people were saying, when Wifie told me the book she was reading contained explicit, perverted sex, I paused to ask myself if ‘perverted’ was a word that I would ever use if it wasn’t for the fact that people around me use it. And whether they would ever use it if people around them weren’t using it, and so on.

I mean, just think about this word? The dictionary definitions include terms like ‘deviating from what is proper or good’, ‘bizarre’, ‘deviant’, ‘corrupted’ and ‘immoral’. Of course, a lot of people might think that ‘perverted’ sex is all those things but I don’t. What was considered perverted in my parents’ day is no longer so obviously ‘immoral’ and ‘corrupted’ – homosexuality, to take an extreme example, is now not only legal but widely accepted. Then there are things that were once unspeakable but are now quite common among ‘normal’ heterosexuals, such as mutual masturbation, role-playing, felatio, spanking, the use of sex toys, and on and on. Heavens above, it wasn’t all that long ago that the idea of a woman actually wanting lots of sex was considered morally insane. 'Perverts' like that were locked away in asylums!

The point is that we fall into the use of particular words and ideas as we attune to our social milieu, through conversation or watching the telly, yet the common, socially-constructed meanings of words, when we look closely at them, may be light-years away from what we actually believe, and from what we would feel comfortable espousing.

We need to guard against unconscious processes like vocabulary alignment in conversation not just because we might say things we don’t mean but also because me might end up believing what we say.

18 January, 2007

Dr Steel To The Rescue

OK, remember me getting all confused about a piece in the science press about some work by Dr. Piers Steel on procrastination? Basically I couldn’t understand how the denominator in his equation worked? Just to remind you, The formula is Utility = E x V / ΓD.

I took the ΓD bit to mean your desire to do the task will go down the more easily accessible it is and the more sensitive you are to delay. So I asked Dr. Steel if I’d misinterpreted it and, not surprisingly, I had. The two symbols Γ and D should be interpreted as follows:

D refers to one's perception of how far away in time one’s reward is and Γ is a sensitivity measure (to delay in this case) which will increase the effect of D.

So now it all makes sense. The desirability of doing a task equals your expectation of succeeding, times the value to you of completing the task, divided by the reward’s perceived distance, times your sensitivity to delay. As the reward ambles off into the distance, your motivation disappears with it and this is increasingly exacerbated if you are impatient for gratification.

Many thanks to Piers (yes, we’re on first-name terms now) for enlightening me. It just shows you can’t believe everything you read in the press – even when it is a reprint of a University of Calgary press release.

Also thanks to Piers for sending me a copy of the paper I searched so long to find. This was, in fact, even more interesting than I expected it to be since it had a lot in it about the relationships that disciplines such as psychology and economics have to the understanding of motivation and their various approaches to same. It also describes a set of equations of motivation called the matching law, of which the one above can be thought of as another special case. I had, in fact, come the matching law many, many years ago during my psychology degree but hadn’t made the connection between what was then a formula to explain pigeon behaviour in operant conditioning experiments and what is now clearly something with much wider applicability.

In fact, the paper was so interesting it may even have been worth the US$12 I meanly refused to spend on it. Especially since the paper actually contains the formula for understanding why I didn’t buy it!

17 January, 2007

My Function Diet Thwarted Yet Again

Have you noticed how hard it is to buy gadgets and appliances that are simple enough actually to suit your needs? I’ve come across it often in the past couple of years. For example, trying to buy a mobile phone without web browsing, an 8 megapixel camera, GPS and an MP3 player is almost impossible now. And when you say to the twelve-year-old girl in the shop that you just want a phone with which you can make phone calls and nothing else, she looks at you in confusion, trying to decide if you’re just too senile to cope with all this complexity, or if you belong to some kind of fundamentalist cult that prohibits taking videos while you surf the web for polyphonic ringtones.

I had the same problem trying to get an MP3 player. The couple of basic features I wanted could only be had in conjunction with a plethora of completely useless ones that I would never use.

And then, this week, our microwave oven gave a last grunt and died. Now, I’m not a big microwave cookery fan – and neither is Wifie. We tend to use it to heat things up and that’s it. But can you buy a microwave oven that does just this? Can you heckers like! No, they’ve all got onboard computers and inbuilt sensors and ‘inverter technology’. (Whatever the heck that is! Maybe it flips your eggs for you.) So one ends up buying something with 15 defrost programmes and more buttons than the Starship Enterprise.

Actually, in the case of the microwave, it was pretty easy once we’d discovered that we couldn’t get what we wanted. We just bought another Sharp just like the last one (since they were still making them) on the grounds that the last one had lasted 10 years so had probably been good value even if we didn’t use nine tenths of its functions.

It could be that each different person going into a shop wants a different, small set of functions from each type of appliance but I doubt it, somehow. What I suspect is that people feel they’re getting more for their money if the gadget has got more stupid things that it does. In fact, not only are most of these functions stupid but the more stupid the better. Can anybody really say it makes sense to watch television on a mobile phone screen? No. Or to surf the Web? No, again. So why buy it this rubbish?

It's like when you go into an everyday sort of restaurant, nothing fancy, have you noticed that the servings are enormous? While the chaps usually plough their way through, the ladies tend to leave quite a bit. It seemed odd to me that restaurants would sell you more food than you can reasonably eat – or that people would pay for that much. Then I realised one day that they do it on purpose so that you feel you’ve got a generous serving in return for your money. It’s a marginal extra cost for the restaurant owner to do this, so it doesn’t inflate the price of the meal much, and the benefit in customer perception is well worth it. Well, I think it’s the same with all this additional functionality in household gadgets. The customer likes to think they’ve got a big plateful of technology – even if they can’t eat it all.

15 January, 2007

The Thief of Time

According to Science Daily, Dr. Piers Steel, a University of Calgary professor in the Haskayne School of Business, has just published a paper in the Psychological Bulletin claiming:
  • Most people's New Year's resolutions are doomed to failure (Well, duh!)

  • Most self-help books have it completely wrong when they say perfectionism is at the root of procrastination (Did you hear that Wifie? Now you’ll need a new excuse.)

  • Procrastination can be explained by a single mathematical equation (Oh yeah, let’s see it!)

The formula, it seems, is this:

The desirability of doing a task equals your expectation of succeeding, times the value to you of completing the task, divided by the task’s immediacy or availability, times your sensitivity to delay (or Utility = E x V / ΓD, as Dr. S so succinctly puts it.)

To put this another way, your chances of doing something increase if you think you can do it and you think it’s worth doing. However, the ΓD bit doesn’t make sense to me. This says your desire to do the task will go down the more easily accessible it is and the more sensitive you are to delay. I suspected that Science Daily got something wrong here. So I looked at the press release they used which is on the University of Calgary’s (very slow) website and it looks like Science Daily simply reprinted it verbatim. (Wow! Is that all it takes to be journalist these days? And all this time I've been working for a living!)

I went to see whether I could find the full paper. It wasn’t at the Haskayne School of Business website (although they seem to be very proud of their roof) so I checked Dr. Steel’s own site: Procrastination Central. This is moderately interesting. It contained a procrastination self-test program (I scored in the bottom 10% - 'rarely or not a procrastinator'), some links to meta-analysis tools (you never know when such things might come in handy), and links to lots of procrastination research papers (which I’ll get around to reading one day I’m sure – if their perceived value goes up rather a lot.) It didn’t have his paper though. I could have had it from the American Psychological Association for US$11.95 if I’d been really keen (damn, there goes that perceived value thing again!) but $12 is $12 and not to be frittered away on a whim.

Sadly, it took Dr Steel ten years of research into procrastination to come up with this and, because it isn’t available online, right now, I’ll probably go to my grave suspecting it was fatally flawed.

13 January, 2007

Control Freaks

There are a lot of people in this world who want to control every aspect of it. I don’t mean the Hitlers and the Napoleons, I mean the housewives and the administrators, the delivery boys and the middle-managers. Ordinary people who are obsessed with making their own private world as safe and predictable as possible and who achieve this at an often huge cost in anxiety, stress and hard work.

I suspect this urge comes to us from our childhood days – that awful time when our awareness was first forming and we noticed that the world was governed by forces that we had no understanding of. In our fear and uncertainty, we desperately acquired techniques to control those forces – to avoid being left alone, to ensure a supply of food, to feel safe, to appease or deflect anger, and so on. Mostly they were to enable us to survive our parents and our peers. Some of them really worked, some of them were just superstitious behaviours that made us feel better.

We carry these early lessons with us all our lives, ingrained so deeply that they define who we are. Yet no two people are quite the same and no two families are identical, so we have all learned different ways of coping, ways that suited our innate personality and capabilities as well as the situation we found ourselves in. Some of us grew up into control freaks. I’m sure you know one or two. You may even be one.

So, why am I banging on about this? Well, I’ve just written a piece for my other blog (which you’d only want to read if you were in the computer business) about trying to understand the technical specialism I’ve worked in all my life. And I started asking myself why I’m so eager to understand it, even now that I’ve retired. And the glaringly obvious answer is that I’m always trying to understand everything. And then it dawned on me that this too is an attempt to stave off those childhood fears, not by controlling the world but by understanding it. Perhaps if I’d had a more neurotic personality, I’d have gone the other way. Genetically and environmentally, it seems that who we are hangs on the roll of the dice.

12 January, 2007

Head Egg

Are you ever silly? Come on now, ‘fess up. Do you ever just play silly games? Well sometimes Wifie and I do. I know. Shocking, isn't it? Like tonight, we started swapping the words ‘egg’ and ‘head’ in common phrases or sayings. For example; ‘You’re doing my egg in,’ ‘I can’t get my egg around it,’ ‘Two eggs are better than one,’ ‘I can’t get you out of my egg,’ ‘Let’s put our eggs together,’ ‘You’ve got your egg in the clouds,’ ‘I was asleep as soon as my egg hit the pillow,’ ‘Running around like an egg-less chicken,’ and so on.

(Of course it works the other way around too – ‘Putting all your heads in one basket,’ – but it’s harder to think of well-known phrases or sayings containing ‘egg’.)

Quite often, Wifie and I will have an outbreak of such silliness. It’s the verbal equivalent of jumping in puddles or playing with mud. Daft and definitely frowned on in adult company but so much fun! And I recommend it to all my readers. We spend so much time filling our eggs with education, burying our eggs in the sand, trying to get an egg, that we need to take a few minutes off from all this sensibleness every now and then, or we'd end up needing our eggs examined.

Then, restored, we can return to the serious business of Life and face it with our eggs held high.

10 January, 2007

MIT Open Courseware

Ever felt like studying linguistics but were too stingy to pay out tens of thousands of dollars for a degree course? (Come on, we all know you’re good for it.) Or what about civil engineering, or anthropology? Medicine? Physics? Well, now, thanks to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, you can.

This amazing institution has put most of its courses online through the MIT Open Courseware programme. Take ten seconds to have a look at the site (2 minutes if, like me, your government can’t get it’s act together to make broadband available even in the major cities) and you’ll see what I mean. It is an absolute cornucopia of educational goodies, a treasure-trove of pedagogical riches, a … Well, you get the idea. I’m impressed.

I know you can get information about most things from the Web (with a bit of poking around) but to get so much, from such a well-respected and trusted source, and for it to be already structured into courses, is just staggering. As a piece of epistemological generosity, as a gift of inestimable value to the world, it ranks alongside some of my other most-admired reference sites, such as Project Gutenberg, Wikipedia, How Stuff Works, APOD, The Domesday Book, and the Dilbert Archive.

MIT says it intends to have each and every one of its courses online soon. I can only gasp in admiration at these people.

08 January, 2007

A Gay P. G. Wodehouse For Our Times

Ever heard of Joe Keenan? No? Neither had I until I bought one of his books a few days ago. It turns out he is the author of a couple of other books and the scriptwriter for the TV show ‘Frasier’ – which I have never watched.

The book is called My Lucky Star and I was drawn to the book by an endorsement on the cover by Eric Idle. “Hilarious… A gay P. G. Wodehouse for our times,” it said, and I love P. G. Wodehouse to pieces and had only just the other day been wondering why no-one writes like him anymore. So, recognising A Sign when I see one, I knew I must have this book.

Well, it’s not hilarious. (What is?) It is definitely gay – embarrassingly frank in places, if you’ll pardon my prudery. But it really is very P. G. Wodehouse-like. Even the silly plot about hard-up writers getting their break in Hollywood could have come straight from the pen of our hero.

P. G. Wodehouse, of course, was a comic genius; the kind of universally admired writer to whom other writers are unfavourably compared and who always appear in people’s top ten book lists. In fact so well-loved is he that a writer would have to be mad to try to imitate him. If the imitation fails, the hapless scribbler must live with the massed sneers of six billion devoted Wodehouse fans. If the imitation succeeds, it is almost as bad, for now six billion Wodehouse lovers are made to feel that their enjoyment is a betrayal of the man to whom they have been emotionally wedded for so many years. In short, to quote the great man himself, any imitator has about as much chance of success as “a one- armed blind man in a dark room trying to shove a pound of melted butter into a wild cat's left ear with a red-hot needle.”

Fortunately for Keenan, he doesn’t quite achieve the exquisite lightness of touch of the master and his ‘modern’ obsession with physical sex rather spoils it, but he comes close enough to impress me (and Eric Idle, of course). The book is generously sprinkled with wit from cover to cover. The writing is excellent and most of it is very clever; so clever, in fact, that I have been annoying Wifie by reading good lines out to her – something I almost never do unless it is something very special, like P. G. Wodehouse himself.

Would I read another Joe Keenan book? Well, possibly. But My Lucky Star has definitely inspired me to re-read Wodehouse!

06 January, 2007

Evil People

Exxon, the world’s largest publicly-traded company, would rather we didn’t get all excited about climate change. If we do, it could be bad for business. We’d make our politicians pass laws to stop companies like Exxon polluting the world. And they wouldn’t like that. That’s why they’re spending millions on funding research groups to turn up evidence that will make it look like there is some possibility that burning petrol is not causing global warming. In fact, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report on Wednesday accusing Exxon Mobil of spending millions of dollars to manipulate public opinion – and doing pretty well at it.

These are the same tactics that the tobacco companies have used for decades now. By getting scientists to publish papers casting doubt on such things as the damaging effects of passive smoking, the tobacco giants have managed to sow enough confusion in some minds to hold up life-saving legislation for many, many years. Now the big oil companies are doing the same thing. The fact that there are thousands, even millions of lives at stake in both cases doesn’t seem to bother the people who pursue these tactics. And their motivation? Greed. It’s hard to believe but they would distort the truth and kill millions, just for money and status.

Which makes the religious loonies who are funding anti-evolution research institutes seem almost harmless by comparison. Yes, these demented Christian fundamentalists are pushing ‘intelligent design’ as part of their broad anti-science offensive and, yes, the kind of ignorance they want to see the world plunged into would cause the death and suffering of many millions (consider their stance on stem-cell research if you don’t believe they don’t give a damn about human suffering) and, yes, their tactics are also borrowed from the tobacco companies and their attempts to produce obfuscating ‘research’ to show that nonsense ideas like ‘irreducible complexity’ are credible follows the same pattern that BAT and Exxon have been following – but at least the fundamentalists have the excuse that they’re insane. They’re not doing it for the money. They really believe there is a mystical being who wants them to harm the world like this.

Whether it’s money or madness that drives them, what these people are doing is wrong. It is bad. It is evil. Anyone involved in any way with these attempts to lie to the world should be ashamed of themselves and of the terrible thing they are doing.

05 January, 2007

What I've Been Doing In My Downtime

Here’s a quick review of some of the books I’ve read and films I’ve watched in the past few weeks.

Poseidon: This remake of The Poseidon Adventure was a real disappointment. It had great special effects but the film was basically a bunch of athletic guys and gals running about screaming for a very long time. This may also be said about the original but at least that one had some characterization and we got to discover a little about – and care a little about – the people who were struggling and dying before our eyes. By contrast, the new Poseidon is so shallow you don’t really care what happens to all the cardboard people it features. Partly this is because modern film-makers don’t use dialogue anymore.

Doom: This is a film based on a video game – a sort of cross between Resident Evil and Alien but nowhere near as good as either. Lots of blood and not much else.

Aeon Flux: Another film of the game – or the comic – but this time surprisingly good. Charlize Theron was incredibly beautiful of course, which helped, but the plot wasn’t too silly (apart from the inherited memories thing) and it jogged along interestingly enough. The fact that Wifie fell asleep half-way through it was probably just a coincidence.

A Christmas Visitor by Anne Perry: This was an incredibly mediocre book by an astonishingly popular author. I’ve never read an Anne Perry novel before and I won’t be reading any more. The writing was dull and sloppy, the characters were shallow and clichéd, and the incredible plot didn’t help at all. On the plus side, it was very short. In fact, the story of Anne Perry’s life is far more interesting than this book.

Shakespeare The Biography by Peter Ackroyd: To be honest, I haven’t finished this yet, but I will. As ever, Peter Ackroyd is excellent value for money. Most people will be familiar with current thinking on Shakespeare’s life. So that’s not why you would read this book. You’d read it for Ackroyd’s deep and colourful insights into the times and places through which Shakespeare moved. I don’t think there is another author who brings the past alive for me the way Ackroyd does – even despite his often dry and academic delivery.

Fiddlers by Ed McBain (aka Evan Hunter): Yes, it’s another 87th Precinct story by one of my all-time favourite crime writers. From the opening paragraph, I was hooked and I gulped down the whole book as fast as I could. McBain’s writing is just great – not quite Raymond Chandler but close. Fiddlers was McBain’s last 87th Precinct novel before he died in 2005 – I am seriously going to miss this series as will many others.

04 January, 2007

When Moggies Ruled The Earth

Chatting to Wifie today about the age of the Universe, she made the comment that, since multi-cellular life (no, not people with more than one mobile phone) has only been around for about 500 million years, the remaining 10 billion year lifetime of our Sun gives us plenty of time for all manner of life-forms to evolve and go extinct.

It got me thinking about a world, far, far in the future, when we are long gone and there has been enough time for even cats to evolve intelligence. Imagine the world dominated by intelligent cats. There'd be 3D TVs showing 24-hour tropical fish shows and cat families would gather round to stare into the set as the little fishes swam around and around. The cat supermarkets would have shelves filled with caged rodents and birds. Processed foods would be called things like 'Uncle Tiddles' Lizard Tails' and 'MouseyMunch - So Fresh You Can Hear It Squeak'. There would be aisles labelled 'Fur Care Products' and 'Sleep Accessories'. The better-off felines would go for makeovers in the department stores, where trained personnel would lick them down from head to tail, then sell them $50 bottles of 'stink restorer'.

Out on the streets, kitty biker gangs, high on catnip, would howl raucously at passing females while their rottweiller pets sat and sulked at their feet, muttering and grumbling to one another in their 'When's it gonna be our turn?' T-shirts. Groups of young toms would be playing pawball - trying to get a ball of yarn between the scratching posts before it completely unravelled. In the evening they'd all head for the discos where the females would mostly sleep in quiet corners while the toms shout and moan at one another with their fur all spiked up with trendy, flourescent mousses.

It's a shame we won't be around to see it but we would all have gone extinct five billion years earlier when the birds became sentient and realised that they didn't have to wait around for us to generate road-kill...

03 January, 2007

Or Butterfly

Well, that's it. I've finally done it. I've worked my last day ever. I am now officially retired - or unemployed - or starting a new career - or something.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not having an identity crisis or anything, but I've been wondering how to describe myself from now on. I really don't like the term 'retired'. It sounds like I plan to sit in an armchair, with a pipe and a comfy cardigan, reading the paper between bouts of 'pottering' in the garden. It doesn't imply the intensive regime of writing and creativity that I have planned for myself. It doesn't suggest the excitement of launching out in new directions and working on the many fascinating 'projects' I intend to pursue.

I could call myself a writer, I suppose, or a musician, or even a blogger - but each sort of implies that I'm making some money at it. Which I definitely am not. I could call myself a man of leisure, a dilettante, a gentleman artist, a philosopher (no implication of earnings there!), or someone spending more time with my family (as erstwhile politicians do). All of these would look good on a passport - which isn't the best of reasons to adopt one, of course.

Then again, why label myself at all? Haven't I had enough of that? Perhaps, if anyone ever cares to ask, I shall put on my best 60s hippy voice and say, 'Don't fence me in, man. I totally reject your bourgeois, crypto-fascist attempts to mould me to your narrow-minded world-view.' (Not for nothing did I take that sociology A-level.) At least it would stop people asking - or talking to me at all, probably.

Hmmm. 'Misanthrope'. Now there's a thought.

02 January, 2007

Too Many Clogs In The Works

Google (you know, the search engine company) has its own blog. It recently published its stats for the last year. It had 15 million page views from 7.6 million different visitors. Not bad – although these very large numbers still only earned the company 16th place in the Technorati blog league.

My own blog has only been going for three months and I have little idea what my stats are. I know it has had something around 1,200 page views but how many unique visitors generated them I wonder. I know my rank on Technorati though, it’s 1,574,145. Now this might look bad but I’m actually quite pleased. Yes, there are 1,574,144 blogs more popular than mine but there are also about 53,425,855 blogs less popular! (Web numbers are sort of like real numbers but with more zeroes on the end.)

That puts my blog in the top 3% of blogs worldwide! Isn’t that staggering?

(I wonder what the blog is like that has the Technorati rank of 55,000,000… It must be fascinating.)

I mention the Google stats because I just read an article about it in TechCrunch – one of my favourite online magazines. The article’s a bit geeky so I wouldn’t recommend it. Basically, it was complaining that the Google blog wasn’t a real blog because it doesn’t allow its readers to post comments. I don’t see this as a big issue myself. A blog to me is just someone’s ramblings. It doesn’t have to be interactive - although it’s better if it is.

The real problem with the Google blog – and with all corporate blogs – is that they are really just advertising material for the corporation. They’re more like press releases than blogs as such. Which is OK. In fact these product-related blogs (‘plogs’ I’ve heard them called) can be full of useful information. If you own the product or use it a lot, a plog can be full of hints and tips, news about fixes and upgrades and so on. But they’re not actually blogs. In fact, corporate blogs (‘clogs’?) are noticeably devoid of opinions, singularly lacking in comment and analysis, and do not critique. Which, to me, are all the valuable bits that you get in real blogs.

So it’s a shame that all these plogs and clogs are packing the top ranks of the Technorati league table. If they got their own league, or were redefined out of the blogsphere, maybe a blog like mine could one day nudge above that magical 1.5 million mark.

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