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Not driving - why I
Is it a bird? Is it a moth? Thoughts
on thoughts Models
Try a cryptic
...and all that
Ubuntu Dog's tails and dancing girls
that matters The
end of the world as you know it The real experience
Coming in under the
Driving - why I don't drive
I have always maintained that I am too
unsafe a driver to drive, and should not obtain a licence. I have
ridden a small motorbike because, I reasoned, on a little motor bike
you can only kill yourself not other people. Of course, I occasionally
practice driving so I might have a chance to manage to drive in an
emergency. My refusal to have a driving licence was always a
disappointment to my mother. Growing up in the 20s, she equated three
things with freedom and emancipation for women: short hair, driving and
a career with qualification papers. Now that I am living again in an
environment with effective public transport, I can disagree with her on
The reason I am unsafe is that I have abysmal reflex times - really,
really bad ones. I always thought the reason had something to do with
my dyslexia. Learning to read and write does not get rid of dyslexia;
it only gets rid of its worst effect. Still present is the bad reflex
times, the clumsiness, the effort it takes to tell mirror images apart,
and a host of little quirky things. My bad reflexes are not going to go
away with time or practice.
Lately I ran across a study that seems to confirm my opinion of my
abilities. The New Scientist reported a study by Hermundur Sigmundson
that showed dyslexics had 20-30% slower reaction times than normal.
This can be compared with other studies: UK legal limit for alcohol
gives 10% slower; using a hand-held cell-phone gives 45% slower.
Actually, Harry and I once made a rough estimate and found that my
reactions were about 3 times (that would be 300% I guess) slower than
Now I would never drive drunk or use a cell-phone while driving, so why
should I drive with what appears to be a permanent lowering of react
times of the same sort of amount. The truth is that not driving can be
very awkward. It can be a drag even with good public transport and
really a problem without. But I simply could not live with myself if I
seriously injured or killed someone while driving, knowing that I am an
Is it a
bird? Is it a moth?
our front yard
is a lavender plant.
It is a favorite with many insects. One day there was a large 'thing'
feeding. We discussed whether it was a hummingbird or a moth. It moved
like a bird and had the shape of a hummingbird, but there was something
odd about the tail and it appeared to have antenna. It was there the
next afternoon and the one after that. We vacillated between thinking
it was a bird and thinking it was an insect.
Google was consulted, of course, and we found pictures of the 'bird',
the Hummingbird Hawk Moth. Apparently it is often mistaken for a
hummingbird. As well as looking and sounding like a hummingbird, they
fly in the heat of the day which is unusual for a moth. They apparently
have a good memory and visit the same flowers at the same time of day -
we noticed that it always came about mid-afternoon.
The numbers that migrate north each year from the Mediterranean, how
far north they go, and how early in the summer is one of the indicators
being used to following climate change. People notice them and report
There are much better pictures of this creature but here is mine.
The world is in for another great scientific shock.
There was the Copernican revolution that gave us a new meaning for the
word 'revolution'. It took a while but people started feeling that they
really were on the surface of a sphere, spinning around and orbiting a
star. At first, the very thought made people dizzy and fearful. Now it
is just how we think.
Then there was Darwin. Not everyone has digested that model yet, but
many people can now be comfortable with the feeling that we are one of
the animals, not the opposite of animals, and share a long history with
them. Darwinism along with plate tectonics has made us accustomed to
the idea that the earth, and its life, has been slowly changing for an
extremely long time rather than created as we see it now, in a short
Next Newton's universe of simple matter and energy, action and
reaction, unfolding in a rigid, continuous space and time, was
shattered by Einstein's relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Most of us
have not only failed to internalize these models, we have not even
managed to understand or really 'believe' them.
It is time to get ready for the next shock. Science is shortly going to
illuminate how the brain works and it is not going to be easy to
I may have an advantage (or disadvantage) here; I never have been
comfortable with the model of thought I was given as a youngster.
Take the conscious and unconscious minds. It never seemed to me that I
had two minds. That is not unusual; a lot of people feel that way. But
what is unusual is that I felt that all my thinking was unconscious and
there was no 'mind in consciousness'. Others seemed happy with a
conscious mind but it was the unconscious that they could not feel
comfortable with. I feel like one person with one mind making decisions
and taking actions but I am only conscious of those decisions and
actions after they have been taken. Consciousness has seemed to me more
akin to memory than to thought - sort of the leading edge of memory.
Take introspection. Most people seem to believe that they know their
own thoughts, more or less completely and more or less accurately. I
feel I know my thoughts in the same way that I know the thoughts of
others, by inference. If I did 'a' then I must have thought 'b'. I know
my own thoughts to a much great extent then I know the thoughts of
others, but in the same way.
I do not believe that I see my thought processes better than others,
just differently. The source of the difference is probably the same
source that caused my dyslexia. My model of this fault in my brain is
that there is a partial 'split-brain' condition where the right and
left hemispheres have slow communication. The imperfection, whatever it
is, allows me to feel at home with recent brain research. The
discoveries have a cosy feel because they confirm how I view my own
thinking. But, in the past, when I have tried to describe to others how
it feels to be me, they find it very difficult to understand and
accept. For many, it is simply impossible to imagine what I am saying.
So I anticipate great difficulty for most people coming to terms with
the brain science revolution around the corner.
More than forty years ago, I did my
first cryptic crossword - well, I got individual words in group efforts
before I ever did a whole puzzle by myself. Originally this was therapy
for my dyslexia but it was soon an addiction. Over the years, I have
encountered many people who would have enjoyed a cryptic crossword if
they had ever tried one, but never understood that it was all about.
I have made up a number of clues for the same word, in the patterns of
those found in cryptics.
could go on, but probably by this time, you recognize that the word is
TOAST. These clues illustrate a few of the cryptic crossword
conventions. In almost all cases there is a word or phase in
that is simply a definition (salute, dry bread, brown, breakfast food,
honour, drink, warm, raised glass, the end, your health, cook cheese,
dark slices, food, under radiant heat, burn). Maybe these are slightly
unusual definitions, but a definitions all the same.
- Salute with dry bread
- Brown stout rearranged
- Breakfast food found in hot oast-house
- Honour to a good man
- Drink while in transit to a star
- Warm yourself with a raised glass
- What always lands on the jam
- It's the end to a short street
- As in a tot to your health
- Cook cheese at the end of night with nothing by a southern
- So tat knot for dark slices
- Partner of rack and melba
- Food for a master public speaker
- May be French but not if it's dry
- Under radiant heat, cook porridge of oats and what sounds
- Burn the first of all the old and sickly trees
The first type of clue is the double definition which I have
illustrated with 1and 6. Similarly, a clue can use double association,
such as two common adjectives associated with the word (see 12 and 14).
Clue 13 is a mixture of a definition and an association. The word may
be a hidden word in part of the clue with the definition in the other
part. Numbers 3 and 5 have the letters of toast in order within them.
With the anagram, the letters are together but not in order. I have
used 'stoat' in 2 and 'so tat' in 11. Clue 15 has a partial anagram
(oats) and a small use of a homophone. This last clue breaks up the
word into smaller pieces and this is common. Number 4 uses 'to' 'a' and
a reference to a saint, 8 is similar but with a reference to the
abbreviation for street. In 10, I get the 's' and 't' from the common
abbreviations of south and time. Clue 10 also illustrates the use of
numbers of letters in nothing for 'o'. Roman numerals are often used in
this way. Positional letters in other words are sometimes
For example all the first letters in a phrase in 16 and the 't' in 10
using the last position in 'night'. Sometimes the pieces are
order, but one piece is an inclusion in another. In 9 'as' is put
inside 'tot'. Occasionally, the clue is not a word play of any sort but
a type of joke definition. Clue 7 refers to the common complaint that
toast lands butter/jam side down when it falls. Of course, I have not
given examples of every possible trick, only the common ones.
I challenge you to try a cryptic if you have never had the pleasure.
My husband cannot understand why I am
interested in tracing my ancestors. I would tell him if I could figure
out why. On the surface genealogy appears boring and narcissistic. I do
it out of choice and find it a pleasure so it is not boring but I
cannot understand why it isn't. I have never been a particularly
narcissistic person. What is the attraction?
Is it because I like history? I do, and I always have, obtained great
pleasure from history. I'm sure that is part of the appeal. I have read
histories that I would not have thought to look into if they were not
linked to some ancestor. But, there is no difficulty in finding
interesting history to delve into and so there must be some other
reason for spending time on dead ancestors.
Tracing ancestors is often like a puzzle and puzzles are good
entertainment, at least I find them so. A designed puzzle guarantees a
solution while a real life puzzle doesn't. Genealogy does not always
give you a lift when you solve a problem, instead you can have
frustration at not finding answers.
I am told that family history is something that people get more
interested in as they get older. I am not sure I believe that but it
might be true and I am getting old. A number of people have said
something like, "It was only after grandmother (or mother, father,
grandfather etc.) died that I realized that I should have asked them
more about (whatever)?" This sentiment could work both ways for people
about my age: they are trying to make up for the information they
didn't gather from their already dead relatives and storing up
information in case some younger member of the family asks for it. But
this could be a motivation for any type of study - we still have the
'why genealogy' question.
There were a few incidences that started my interest. One was finding
out that my grandfather's grandfather was born in Quebec. My
grandfather grew up in Nebraska, with his grandfather living in the
house. For the first time I had a clue to my grandfather's extreme
distrust of Catholics and French Canadians. Except for a few quirks
like this one, I really thought my grandfather was a pretty reasonable
person. I wondered that other explanations I would find about our
The next incident was when I got an update of a list of a great
grandparent's descendents. It had on the first page a list of the
ancestors of this great grandparent back for eight generations. But all
that was listed was a single male line, each man's father - like some
odd sort of immaculate paternal conception. I did a quick calculation a
found I had 2048 ancestors in the top generation, all of them I presume
as important to me, genetically or culturally, as the single man
listed. This made me laugh and get angry at the same time. I
immediately set out to try and find my mother's mother's mother's etc.
For a while I was just trying to correct this lack of balance. But what
I had was a list of somewhat meaningless names and dates.
But these names and dates soon became times and places along with hints
of status, occupation or beliefs. Collection of information on
particular circumstances has continued to be engaging.
I had to make a decision about whether I was going to continue to
'waste' time on this hobby and I decided to continue. Who knows why -
certainly not me!
I was recently reminded of a great
comical book called '1066 and All That' by Sellar and Yeatman. If you
have not encountered this parody of the old-fashioned way of teaching
English history, I recommend it. I have included an extract with the
famous genealogy which includes Williamanmary and Henry VI (part I)
among its gems. Since reading the book many many years ago, I have
never thought of William and Mary as joint monarchs without the vision
of a king with the odd name Williamanmary springing to mind and King
John is always in my mind as a bad king but a good thing. The blurb
sentence is 'A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts
you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine
Dates'. It is memorable - a confused childhood memory - and very funny.
de Montfort, although only a Frenchman, was a Good Thing, and is very
notable as being the only good Baron in history. The other Barons were,
of course, all wicked Barons. They had, however, many important duties
under the Banorial system. These were:
1. To be armed to the teeth.
2. To extract from the Villein saccage and soccage, tollage and
tallage, pillage and ullage, and, in extreme cases, all other banorial
amenities such as umbrage and porrage.
3. To hasten the King's death, deposition, insanity, etc., and make
quite sure that there were always at least three false claimants to the
4. To resent the Attitude of the Church. (The Barons were secretly
jealous of the Church, which they accused of encroaching on their
5. To keep up the Middle Ages.
order to clear up the general confusion of the period it is customary
to give at this point a genealogical table of the Kings (and even some
Queens) of England. As these tables are themselves somewhat confusing,
the one here has to a certain extent been rationalized,
and will, the Editors hope, prove to be exceptionally memorable."
I have been
trying to find out what
ubuntu means since Harry has take to using the Ubuntu release of Linux
on his computer. It is not easy to pin down the meaning but here are
some attempts I found. It's a very interesting concept.
-We affirm our
humanity when we acknowledge that of others.
-An understanding of ourselves in relation with the world.
-There exists a common bond between us all and it is through this bond,
and through our interaction with our fellow human beings, that we
discover our own human qualities.
-A person is a person through other persons.
-The central concept of social and political organization in African
philosophy, particularly among the Bantu-speaking peoples. It consists
of the principles of sharing and caring for one another.
-to be human is to affirm one's humanity by recognizing the humanity of
others and, on that basis, establish humane respectful relations with
-That if and when one is faced with a decisive choice between wealth
the preservation of life of another human being, then one should opt
for the preservation of life.
-The African worldview driving much of African values and social
thinking is "Ubuntu". The Ubuntu worldview has been recognized as the
primary reason that South Africa has managed to successfully transfer
power from a white minority government to a majority-rule government
without bloodshed. The South African government will attempt to draft a
Data Privacy Bill and strike an appropriate balance within the context
of African values and an African worldview.
is seen in the importance of collective learning, teamwork,
sustainability, focus on local community, alternatives to extractive
capitalism, fairness, collectiveness, humility, dialoque collective
restitution, healing, conflict resolution, reconciliation.
-Ubuntu worldview as a community-based mindset, opposed to Western
libertarianism and individualism.
-Ubuntu is an African worldview based on values of intense humanness,
caring, respect, compassion, and associated values ensuring a happy and
qualitative human community life in a spirit of family.
-To Be is to Belong.
comes from the word muntu which means human being, the opposite
isilwane meaning animal.
-Ubuntu means being human and being human in the African sense means
among other things
your opponent when he is already on the ground
---going to a
funeral of your enemy
---if somebody was
owing you money or a cow, it meant not taking a cow from him if that
was the only thing that provided milk
---not eating when
other children are not eating, sharing the food with them
a stranger into your house to sleep and if he came to your house at
night after you had finished supper, catching a fowl and slaughter it
for him and cook it even at night and let him eat
your neigough had no children, you give him one of your children to go
and stay there and do erands some of those children never came back-I
DO NOT MEAN HUMAN TRAFFICKING
women would not be murdered and so the children
---all the good
qualities of man.It does not mean human nature.
-To perceive ubuntu in your heart is like getting saved or
a mathematical theorem that you have been battling for years to
-A humanist philosophy focusing on people's allegiances and relations
with each other.
-A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of
others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he
or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or
she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are
humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed. -
-The concept of ubuntu defines the individual in terms of their several
relationships with others.
-A traveller through our country would stop at a village, and he didn't
have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him
food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but Ubuntu has
various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich
themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order
to enable the community around you to improve? - Nelson Mandela
-Concept of ubuntu is used to emphasise the need for unity or consensus
in decision-making, as well as the need for a suitably humanitarian
ethic to inform those decisions.
-That the king owed his status, including all the powers associated
with it, to the will of the people under him.
-Visitors do not need to burden themselves with carrying provisions -
all they need is to dress properly and be on the road. All visitors are
provided for and protected in every home they pass through without
payment being expected. In fact, every individual should try their best
to make visitors comfortable - and this applies to everyone who is
aware of the presence of a visitor within a locality. This explains how
David Livingstone survived on his journeys in Southern Africa
especially among ubuntu-oriented societies of the time.
-Other manifestations of ubuntu are that it is taboo to call elderly
people by their given names; instead they are called by their surnames.
This has the effect of banishing individualism and replacing it with a
representative role, in which the individual effectively stands for the
people among whom he comes from at all times. The individual identity
is replaced with the larger societal identity within the individual.
Thus, families are portrayed or reflected in the individual and this
phenomenon is extended to villages, districts, provinces and regions
being portrayed in the individual. This places high demands on the
individual to behave in the highest standards and to portray the
highest possible virtues that society strives for.
-It embodies all the invaluable virtues that society strives for
maintaining harmony and the spirit of sharing among its members.
-Jurisprudence tending to support remedies and punishments that tend to
bring people together.
-You can't be human alone.
I got an
email from Blair Bolles about this:
I took a quick look at your site and noticed the discussion of "ubuntu."
I think I can give you an entymology for the word.
It is plainly a Bantu word although not a Swahili one. Bantu languages
are marked at the front rather than the back. For example, we say
child/chldren putting the plural marker at the end, while Swahili
speakers say mtoto/watoto putting the marker at the front. Notice also
that Bantu languages have a marker for singular (m in mtoto) as well as
plural, something English speakers don't have. In this case the markers
in ubuntu are u- and -bu-. -ntu is the stem that sets the general
-ntu is commonly the stem for an item. In Swahili the singualar for a
human item is is m-tu (without the hyphen, of course) while the plural
is wa-tu. (Other singulars are ki-tu for a single inanimate
object/thing; pa-tu for a single location; ji-tu for a single giant.)
The word Bantu itself is a common word for people (plural, I think) in
many of the family's languages.
A common marker in Swahili and many other Bantu languages is u- which
can be used in two ways: to name a territory or to name an abstraction.
The Watutusi people, for example, (did you notice that wa-? It
pluralizes the tribal name) live in ututusi. The Wafaranza is Swahili
for the French and they live (as apparently do you) in Ufaranza. You
may recall that at the time of African independence there was much talk
of uhuru (freedom) which stuck a u- on huru (some concrete word, which
I confess to not knowing). The Tanaznian word for socialism is ujamaa,
-jamaa means a family and u- turns it into an abstraction,
Hence, u-bu-ntu probably works out to the terrain of peopleness. After
that, you can have people arguing just what that means. The word sounds
to me like a coinage, an effort to translate the word "humanism" into
an African language. The country where they would be most likely to
want to come up with an African word for humanism is Zambia, under the
regime of President Kaunda. (I once was riding in Zambia in a car that
had a blowout. We avoided crashing into a tree and immediately
villagers appeared to help. I thanked them profusely and one of them
said to me in English, 'After all, we are a humanist people.') So I'm
guessing it's a Zambian coinage. I found that when I was there, I could
understand speakers sometimes if I just relaxed and let the sounds wash
over me (rather like catching the French vibes in Portuguese) so event
though ubuntu is not a Swah
construction I suspect I'm pretty close to being right in its origins.
tails and dancing
Two things caught
my attention this
week and together started me thinking again about left and right
lateralization of the brain. The one article was about right-tailed and
left-tailed wagging by dogs and the other was a rotating silhouette of
a dancing girl that can be seen as rotating clockwise or
counterclockwise. The turning lady was supposed to be a test of whether
you are left brained or right brained.
Of course, being left-handed, I have always been interested in
lateralization. But I have become very negative and bored with the
really unbelievable 'simplisticness' (I don't mean simply; I mean
simplistic) of the right-brained-versus-left-brained popular theories.
Especially annoying is the idea what each of us is one or the other.
Also annoying is that we cannot learn to do both of the things that are
listed as opposites. So if I am left-brained, I cannot be creative or
if I am right-brained, I cannot be logical. This does not make sense.
Why are things presented as opposites when they are not? Why can't
someone be good at detail and see the big picture at the same time? Do
these theorists think that one hemisphere goes to sleep while the other
works? Why would the parts of the brain not cooperate with each
So when I come across tests to see if I was left-brained or
right-brained I do not take them - but I took this one before I
realized what it was. For me the dancing girl turned clockwise; there
was no doubt I could not make it turn counterclockwise no matter how
hard I tried. I showed it to Harry and he could turn the girl either
way. He also told me how to do it. Following his advice I managed to
get the middle of the girl turning counterclockwise. I was just about
to announce success when I noticed that the rest of the girl, above and
below the part that I had been concentrating on, was still turning
clockwise. The poor dancer was being twisted, and this was easier for
me to do then to force the whole silhouette to go counterclockwise. I
never managed to shake the clockwise rotation.
This was interesting and I would love to understand it. Why could I not
turn the girl in the other direction? However what I was told was that
that I was right-brained and therefore: use feeling rather than logic,
am 'big picture' oriented rather than detail oriented, ruled by
imagination rather than facts, use symbols and images rather than words
and language, concerned with the future rather than the past, more
interested in philosophy and religion than math and science, etc. etc.,
down to takes risks rather than plays safe. Blah, Blah. This is not a
description of me - it does not ring true. So I tried another test that
was available. It was some colour words written in coloured letters but
the colours did not match the words. For example RED might be written
in green letters. I was to read the words and note whether it was
difficult not to mistakenly say the colour of the typeface. It was not
difficult at all and so I was left-brained and therefore I was: logical
rather than random, sequential rather than holistic, rational rather
than intuitive etc.etc. Again it was not a description of me.
I was very excited, years ago, by Sperry's experiments showing the
differences between the two hemispheres. There is something here about
how brains work but it has been degraded into a silly notion of
left-brained and right-brained people. It may sell books and consultant
fees but it is silly.
So it was nice to read about the dogs. This is really a sweet
observation made by A. Quaranta. When a dog wags to show pleasure, it
wags to the right and when it wags to show nervousness, it wags to the
left. So the left side of the brain greets the dog's owner and the
right side of the brain signals uneasy friendliness to some big strange
dog. This fits with a growing number of observations from all
vertebrates (amphibians, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals) that
differences between the hemispheres is the rule.
P. MacNeilage in summarizing the work with non-humans gives a few
differences that have been proposed. The left hemisphere is concerned
with approaching things while the right is concerned with avoidance.
The left is concerned with routine actions and considered responses
while the right is concerned with emergencies, threats and actions
requiring speed. In vision the left processes detail better than the
right but the right does better at processing overall spatial arrays.
The left hemisphere has a communication specialization in songbirds as
well as primates. But it seems that the right hemisphere may be better
at recognizing the non-verbal communication in facial expressions.
This is interesting and worth my following so I will have to learn how
to do that without constantly running into maddening talk about
'developing your right-brain'.
At the end of the year, http://www.edge.org asked the question:
The Edge Annual Question - 2008
thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy.When God changes your
mind, that's faith.When facts change your mind, that's science.
WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT? WHY?
Science is based on evidence. What happens when
the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your
Way over a hundred scientists and other thinkers gave short replies
which I have just finished reading. I am certainly not part of this
elite group - but because of the discussions with Harry over the years,
I have a clear notion of what I think about the subject of the
First science is one of the 'collective scholarships'. Like history,
philosophy and the like, it accumulates a body of published works and
criticisms of those works, which is seen as a growing body of
knowledge, even of wisdom.
The important word here is 'published'. These scholarships are
conducted in the open, in public and are subjected to equally public
criticism. Secret systems of knowledge (like alchemy, witchcraft etc.)
grow slowly and may spend long periods in blind alleys; they die in
competition with public systems. Another implication of publication is
that a scientist or small group of scientists take personal
responsibility of the integrity of the work that is being reported -
they sign it so to speak. This is not an empty formality as their
careers depend on their published work not be exposed as sloppy,
misleading, stolen, or fraudulent. Even when published work is not made
the subject of someone else's investigations and therefore is not
directly subject to attempted replication, it was not published until
it had undergone peer review. In my opinion if work is not published in
a peer-reviewed scientific journal than it is not science. Many books
and magazine/newspaper articles are written about science but the
Science with the capital S is written in the scientific journals.
'Collective' is a more obvious word - one mind can only produce a small
amount of new insights, two minds can produce more than twice as much
and so on. The number of people involve also protects the quality of
the product. You 'can't fool all of the people all the time' as the
saying goes. Here we come to the question of method and the upshot
seems to be the any method that satisfies other scientists in the field
is an acceptable method. The question should not be 'what is the
scientific method?', the question should be 'what is convincing to
other scientists?. Just because science is a collective enterprise does
not mean that scientists act in cooperative ways, quite the opposite,
science is more usually done it an adversarial atmosphere. Groups of
pros and antis fight out the acceptance of new theories, searching for
weaknesses in their opponent's arguments and flaws in their
experiments. When a consensus is finally agreed it is likely to be a
strong one; one accepted first by scientists working in other areas,
then by the scientifically educated public and finally most of us.
The methods used in science (as opposed to a 'scientific method') vary
from area to area. In the same way that one science would use
telescopes and another would use microscopes, so the nature of data and
how it is interpreted is different in different areas. The theoretical
background also differs. You might think, looking at journals, that
there was not one science but many separate sciences. But there are
interfaces between the little sciences where ideas pass from one to
another or where arguments may arise. (For example the different
consensus reached by paleontologist and molecule biologists on whether
the 'recently out of Africa' story of human history was valid.) There
is in the end one science and those working in the interface areas are
not satisfied to have inconsistent results between two areas of
science. Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geology and Astronomy lean on one
another and try to be a consistent whole.
So what we can say is that science is a huge body of scholarship, both
wide and deep, that is the product of a great many people working
openly for a few hundred years, and trying diligently to uncover any
'errors' in the knowledge it has accumulated. The scientific method is
then simply the experimental, mathematical and logical presentations
that scientists find convincing. The idea of a speculation which leads
to a formally stated hypothesis which is tested by experimental
attempts at falsification it, fits much of scientific work but often
has to be stretched to make it fit. Another model is to find a new
experimental tool (a new pair of glasses to look at the world with) and
use it to gather new data then use the data to develop a new theory.
This is the way induction is often seen in science. But in the end, the
work of a scientist either convinces or does not convince his peers.
So what convinces in the scientific atmosphere?
1. Errors are not convincing. The rules of logic and
must be followed in deductive arguments. Data collection must be
systematically done and recorded well. Words must be used with
precision. Classification systems must be clear. And so on through the
normal everyday rules that we would expect of clear thinking and
2. The simpler and less convoluted or complex argument or
experiment is the more convincing. The more clear-cut the results, the
more convincing. Again these are very everyday rules for all of us.
3. Special conditions are not convincing. Experiments must be
able to be replicated. Anything 'special' about the scientist or the
subject must be justified or eliminated. There must be a reasonable
explanation why something is not replicated by another person in
another place in another time. Not all data comes from experiments that
can be replicated - supernova cannot be replicated at will - but the
idea of no special conditions applies even where replication is
4. Results that call into question strong theories (those
general theories that have enjoyed a stable consensus for some time)
are suspected and require careful investigation. After investigation,
they may be accepted as a 'fact' that is contrary to theory. They
weaken the theory's status by in effect forcing a 'patch' to the
theory, but do not destroy it until a replacement theory that is better
5. Supernatural explanations, even those that are believed by
scientist, are not part of science. Many great scientists have been
religious and believed they were uncovering God's work, but they never,
never put forward a supernatural explanation of anything in a
scientific context. Science is about natural explanations with no
special conditions or arguments from authority.
6. Evidence has more weight that all else in science. Thought
experiments are accepted in many arguments especially as a way of
clarifying questions, but it is not considered as an experiment in the
normal sense of the word. Neither are computer simulations. They show
possibilities and limitations etc. but are not experiments. (Computer
are however powerful tools.) Getting something from 'first principles'
does not mean much to a scientist. What is convincing is good evidence.
It is this aspect of science that has been stated as 'testing against
reality'. It also has been stated as 'a scientific theory must be
falsifiable'. I prefer the statement, if a scientific argument is to be
convincing then real evidence must be brought to the table. This is the
main difference between science and philosophy - if what appears to be
an iron-clad logical argument is in opposition to an iron-clad piece of
evidence, the evidence wins for the scientist and something must be
wrong with the axioms of the logic.
The people who come into science tend to have a particular mindset:
they have a strong sense of there being a natural reality; further that
natural reality can be understood by finding general theories or 'laws'
that describe and predict the world around us; and by iteratively
improving those theories it will be possible to come closer to, but
probably never reach, some ideal of a complete explanation of natural
reality. Science is not about truth, beauty or utility although
individual scientists may be motivated by these, as well as the always
present curiosity motive. It is about theoretical explanations of
reality based on the evidence that reality supplies. It is about
creating a convincing theoretical framework for understanding our world
including us in it.
We have started to find another type
of fossil in our diggings. It is something called a 'glass sponge',
from a class called 'Hexactinellida' and the closest I can ID it is an
extinct Jurassic one called ' Tremadictyon'.
There have been examples since the earliest sponges until today. They
are found at great depths in the oceans and live longer than most
(maybe all) other animals. The usual shape is cylindrical or cup
shaped. They filter their food out of the sea water.
Glass sponges are very odd. Instead of being the soft absorbent things
we can use for washing in the bath, the glass sponges are rigid because
they have a sort of glass skeleton. Little spicules with 6 points
connect with each other to form a lacy web of silica. The soft part of
the body is mostly one large cell with many nuclei. The little spicules
are formed and cemented together inside this large cell. This single
cell forms the outside and inside surfaces of the sponge as well as the
thickness of the wall. The cytoplasm streams around in this cell, every
bit of cytoplasm sees every part of the sponge about every half day.
There is no nervous system but there is a lot of electrical activity in
the large cell and that controls the flow of water through the wall of
The reefs in the Tethys Sea in the Jurassic were rich in
Hexactinellids. Because of their silica mesh they form fossils easier
than other sponges.
Weather that matters
grandfather used to say, 'the
weather don't matter if the wind don't blow.' That about sums up his 70
years of watching Saskatchewan weather. From dust storms to blizzards,
it is the wind that matters on the prairies.
But other places have other weather. The first winter that I worked in
the UK, I went to work in the dark. I came home in the dark.
including the weekends were either raining or heavy overcast. No sun, I
didn't see the sun for a couple of months. Then the weather forecast
said that the sun was going to shine. I thought about being sick but I
decided that it was just too obvious. The first time there is sun in an
age and Janet's sick, who would believe that. So I went to work. The
building housed about 150 people on a normal work day. There were about
12 of us that showed up for work. I went back home. That year, 'nothing
mattered if the sun did shine'.
The British Isles have something called Scotch Mist. It is not a mist
because there are little droplets of water. It is easier to see through
then a mist or a fog. But it is not rain either because the little
droplets are so small they hang in the air rather then falling. If you
stand still, you do not get wet - you would in a rain. If you move, you
get soaked - you wouldn't in a fog. I came to love Scotch Mist and
found it so soothing. My husband hated it and called it 'rain that's
too lazy to fall down.'
Nairobi was another matter. It is a mile high and almost on the
equator. It has monsoons. It is great to have sun, rain and cloud on
schedule. (I know the monsoons sometimes fail but that aside.) There
are the short rains in the spring and it buckets down for a couple of
weeks. And there are the long rains in the fall when it rains softly
every night for about a month. In the winter it doesn't rain but there
is often cloud cover. In the summer, there is not cloud or a drop of
rain. 'The weather didn't matter if the monsoons were on time.'
That business of the rain falling at night is a lovely arrangement. We
had it in Austria. Someone once tried to explain it to me, about the
south side of the Alps and air movements, but my German was not up to
the job. In any case, in that part of Austria it rained often and often
at night. When it didn't rain, it was often very sunny - most days.
Things grew - you could almost hear them grow in the fertile soil,
watered nightly and given strong sun every day - or so it seemed. What
mattered in Austria was whether you were on a south facing slope or a
north facing one.
From now on we will not be able to count on anything thanks to global
end of the world as you know it
This article (Apr 15 2008,
TomDispatch.com) does seem to put most of the elements of the problem
together. Missing is discussion in depth of the effect of bio-fuel
competing with human food, the enormous disruptive climate effects in
store for us and the even greater environmental effects of new
processes such as tar sand oil recovery. Klare has done many other
articles and you can't get everything in one go. 'The end of the world
as we know it' is right!!!
The End of the World As You Know It … and the Rise of the New
Energy World Order
by Michael T. Klare
Oil at $110 a
barrel. Gasoline at
$3.35 (or more) per gallon. Diesel fuel at $4 per gallon. Independent
truckers forced off the road. Home heating oil rising to unconscionable
price levels. Jet fuel so expensive that three low-cost airlines
stopped flying in the past few weeks. This is just a taste of the
latest energy news, signaling a profound change in how all of us, in
this country and around the world, are going to live - trends that, so
far as anyone can predict, will only become more pronounced as energy
supplies dwindle and the global struggle over their allocation
Energy of all sorts was once hugely abundant, making possible the
worldwide economic expansion of the past six decades. This expansion
benefited the United States above all - along with its "First World"
allies in Europe and the Pacific. Recently, however, a select group of
former "Third World" countries - China and India in particular - have
sought to participate in this energy bonanza by industrializing their
economies and selling a wide range of goods to international markets.
This, in turn, has led to an unprecedented spurt in global energy
consumption - a 47% rise in the past 20 years alone, according to the
U.S. Department of Energy (DoE).
An increase of this sort would not be a matter of deep anxiety if the
world's primary energy suppliers were capable of producing the needed
additional fuels. Instead, we face a frightening reality: a marked
slowdown in the expansion of global energy supplies just as demand
rises precipitously. These supplies are not exactly disappearing -
though that will occur sooner or later - but they are not growing fast
enough to satisfy soaring global demand.
The combination of rising demand, the emergence of powerful new energy
consumers, and the contraction of the global energy supply is
demolishing the energy-abundant world we are familiar with and creating
in its place a new world order. Think of it as: rising powers/shrinking
This new world order will be characterized by fierce international
competition for dwindling stocks of oil, natural gas, coal, and
uranium, as well as by a tidal shift in power and wealth from
energy-deficit states like China, Japan, and the United States to
energy-surplus states like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. In the
process, the lives of everyone will be affected in one way or another -
with poor and middle-class consumers in the energy-deficit states
experiencing the harshest effects. That's most of us and our children,
in case you hadn't quite taken it in.
Here, in a nutshell, are five key forces in this new world order which
will change our planet:
1. Intense competition between older and newer economic powers
for available supplies of energy:
Until very recently, the mature industrial powers of Europe, Asia, and
North America consumed the lion's share of energy and left the dregs
for the developing world. As recently as 1990, the members of the
Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the club
of the world's richest nations, consumed approximately 57% of world
energy; the Soviet Union/Warsaw Pact bloc, 14% percent; and only 29%
was left to the developing world. But that ratio is changing: With
strong economic growth in the developing countries, a greater
proportion of the world's energy is being consumed by them. By 2010,
the developing world's share of energy use is expected to reach 40%
and, if current trends persist, 47% by 2030.
China plays a critical role in all this. The Chinese alone are
projected to consume 17% of world energy by 2015, and 20% by 2025 - by
which time, if trend lines continue, it will have overtaken the United
States as the world's leading energy consumer. India, which, in 2004,
accounted for 3.4% of world energy use, is projected to reach 4.4%
percent by 2025, while consumption in other rapidly industrializing
nations like Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Turkey is
expected to grow as well.
These rising economic dynamos will have to compete with the mature
economic powers for access to remaining untapped reserves of exportable
energy - in many cases, bought up long ago by the private energy firms
of the mature powers like Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, Total of France,
and Royal Dutch Shell. Of necessity, the new contenders have developed
a potent strategy for competing with the Western "majors": they've
created state-owned companies of their own and fashioned strategic
alliances with the national oil companies that now control oil and gas
reserves in many of the major energy-producing nations.
China's Sinopec, for example, has established a strategic alliance with
Saudi Aramco, the nationalized giant once owned by Chevron and Exxon
Mobil, to explore for natural gas in Saudi Arabia and market Saudi
crude oil in China. Likewise, the China National Petroleum Corporation
(CNPC) will collaborate with Gazprom, the massive state-controlled
Russian natural gas monopoly, to build pipelines and deliver Russian
gas to China. Several of these state-owned firms, including CNPC and
India's Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, are now set to collaborate
with Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. in developing the extra-heavy crude of
the Orinoco belt once controlled by Chevron. In this new stage of
energy competition, the advantages long enjoyed by Western energy
majors have been eroded by vigorous, state-backed upstarts from the
2. The insufficiency of primary energy supplies: The
the global energy industry to satisfy demand is shrinking. By all
accounts, the global supply of oil will expand for perhaps another
half-decade before reaching a peak and beginning to decline, while
supplies of natural gas, coal, and uranium will probably grow for
another decade or two before peaking and commencing their own
inevitable declines. In the meantime, global supplies of these existing
fuels will prove incapable of reaching the elevated levels demanded.
Take oil. The U.S. Department of Energy claims that world oil demand,
expected to reach 117.6 million barrels per day in 2030, will be
matched by a supply that - miracle of miracles - will hit exactly 117.7
million barrels (including petroleum liquids derived from allied
substances like natural gas and Canadian tar sands) at the same time.
Most energy professionals, however, consider this estimate highly
unrealistic. "One hundred million barrels is now in my view an
optimistic case," the CEO of Total, Christophe de Margerie, typically
told a London oil conference in October 2007. "It is not my view; it is
the industry view, or the view of those who like to speak clearly,
honestly, and [are] not just trying to please people."
Similarly, the authors of the Medium-Term Oil Market Report, published
in July 2007 by the International Energy Agency, an affiliate of the
OECD, concluded that world oil output might hit 96 million barrels per
day by 2012, but was unlikely to go much beyond that as a dearth of new
discoveries made future growth impossible.
Daily business-page headlines point to a vortex of clashing trends:
worldwide demand will continue to grow as hundred of millions of
newly-affluent Chinese and Indian consumers line up to purchase their
first automobile (some selling for as little as $2,500); key older
"elephant" oil fields like Ghawar in Saudi Arabia and Canterell in
Mexico are already in decline or expected to be so soon; and the rate
of new oil-field discoveries plunges year after year. So expect global
energy shortages and high prices to be a constant source of hardship.
3. The painfully slow development of energy alternatives:
long been evident to policymakers that new sources of energy are
desperately needed to compensate for the eventual disappearance of
existing fuels as well as to slow the buildup of climate-changing
"greenhouse gases" in the atmosphere. In fact, wind and solar power
have gained significant footholds in some parts of the world. A number
of other innovative energy solutions have already been developed and
even tested out in university and corporate laboratories. But these
alternatives, which now contribute only a tiny percentage of the
world's net fuel supply, are simply not being developed fast enough to
avert the multifaceted global energy catastrophe that lies ahead.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, renewable fuels, including
wind, solar, and hydropower (along with "traditional" fuels like
firewood and dung), supplied but 7.4% of global energy in 2004;
biofuels added another 0.3%. Meanwhile, fossil fuels - oil, coal, and
natural gas - supplied 86% percent of world energy, nuclear power
another 6%. Based on current rates of development and investment, the
DoE offers the following dismal projection: In 2030, fossil fuels will
still account for exactly the same share of world energy as in 2004.
The expected increase in renewables and biofuels is so slight - a mere
8.1% - as to be virtually meaningless.
In global warming terms, the implications are nothing short of
catastrophic: Rising reliance on coal (especially in China, India, and
the United States) means that global emissions of carbon dioxide are
projected to rise by 59% over the next quarter-century, from 26.9
billion metric tons to 42.9 billion tons. The meaning of this is
simple. If these figures hold, there is no hope of averting the worst
effects of climate change.
When it comes to global energy supplies, the implications are nearly as
dire. To meet soaring energy demand, we would need a massive influx of
alternative fuels, which would mean equally massive investment - in the
trillions of dollars - to ensure that the newest possibilities move
rapidly from laboratory to full-scale commercial production; but that,
sad to say, is not in the cards. Instead, the major energy firms
(backed by lavish U.S. government subsidies and tax breaks) are putting
their mega-windfall profits from rising energy prices into vastly
expensive (and environmentally questionable) schemes to extract oil and
gas from Alaska and the Arctic, or to drill in the deep and difficult
waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. The result? A few
more barrels of oil or cubic feet of natural gas at exorbitant prices
(with accompanying ecological damage), while non-petroleum alternatives
limp along pitifully.
4. A steady migration of power and wealth from energy-deficit
to energy-surplus nations:
There are few countries - perhaps a dozen altogether - with enough oil,
gas, coal, and uranium (or some combination thereof) to meet their own
energy needs and provide significant surpluses for
surprisingly, such states will be able to extract increasingly
beneficial terms from the much wider pool of energy-deficit nations
dependent on them for vital supplies of energy. These terms, primarily
of a financial nature, will result in growing mountains of petrodollars
being accumulated by the leading oil producers, but will also include
political and military concessions.
In the case of oil and natural gas, the major energy-surplus states can
be counted on two hands. Ten oil-rich states possess 82.2% of the
world's proven reserves. In order of importance, they are: Saudi
Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela,
Russia, Libya, Kazakhstan, and Nigeria. The possession of natural gas
is even more concentrated. Three countries - Russia, Iran, and Qatar -
harbor an astonishing 55.8% of the world supply. All of these countries
are in an enviable position to cash in on the dramatic rise in global
energy prices and to extract from potential customers whatever
political concessions they deem important.
The transfer of wealth alone is already mind-boggling. The
oil-exporting countries collected an estimated $970 billion from the
importing countries in 2006, and the take for 2007, when finally
calculated, is expected to be far higher. A substantial fraction of
these dollars, yen, and euros have been deposited in "sovereign-wealth
funds" (SWFs), giant investment accounts owned by the oil states and
deployed for the acquisition of valuable assets around the world. In
recent months, the Persian Gulf SWFs have been taking advantage of the
financial crisis in the United States to purchase large stakes in
strategic sectors of its economy. In November 2007, for example, the
Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) acquired a $7.5 billion stake in
Citigroup, America's largest bank holding company; in January,
Citigroup sold an even larger share, worth $12.5 billion, to the Kuwait
Investment Authority (KIA) and several other Middle Eastern investors,
including Prince Walid bin Talal of Saudi Arabia. The managers of ADIA
and KIA insist that they do not intend to use their newly-acquired
stakes in Citigroup and other U.S. banks and corporations to influence
U.S. economic or foreign policy, but it is hard to imagine that a
financial shift of this magnitude, which can only gain momentum in the
decades ahead, will not translate into some form of political leverage.
In the case of Russia, which has risen from the ashes of the Soviet
Union as the world's first energy superpower, it already has. Russia is
now the world's leading supplier of natural gas, the second largest
supplier of oil, and a major producer of coal and uranium. Though many
of these assets were briefly privatized during the reign of Boris
Yeltsin, President Vladimir Putin has brought most of them back under
state control - in some cases, by exceedingly questionable legal means.
He then used these assets in campaigns to bribe or coerce former Soviet
republics on Russia's periphery reliant on it for the bulk of their oil
and gas supplies. European Union countries have sometimes expressed
dismay at Putin's tactics, but they, too, are dependent on Russian
energy supplies, and so have learned to mute their protests to
accommodate growing Russian power in Eurasia. Consider Russia a model
for the new energy world order.
5. A Growing Risk of Conflict: Throughout history,
in power have normally been accompanied by violence - in some cases,
protracted violent upheavals. Either states at the pinnacle of power
have struggled to prevent the loss of their privileged status, or
challengers have fought to topple those at the top of the heap. Will
that happen now? Will energy-deficit states launch campaigns to wrest
the oil and gas reserves of surplus states from their control - the
Bush administration's war in Iraq might already be thought of as one
such attempt - or to eliminate competitors among their deficit-state
The high costs and risks of modern warfare are well known and there is
a widespread perception that energy problems can best be solved through
economic means, not military ones. Nevertheless, the major powers are
employing military means in their efforts to gain advantage in the
global struggle for energy, and no one should be deluded on the
subject. These endeavors could easily enough lead to unintended
escalation and conflict.
One conspicuous use of military means in the pursuit of energy is
obviously the regular transfer of arms and military-support services by
the major energy-importing states to their principal suppliers. Both
the United States and China, for example, have stepped up their
deliveries of arms and equipment to oil-producing states like Angola,
Nigeria, and Sudan in Africa and, in the Caspian Sea basin, Azerbaijan,
Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. The United States has placed particular
emphasis on suppressing the armed insurgency in the vital Niger Delta
region of Nigeria, where most of the country's oil is produced; Beijing
has emphasized arms aid to Sudan, where Chinese-led oil operations are
threatened by insurgencies in both the South and Darfur.
Russia is also using arms transfers as an instrument in its efforts to
gain influence in the major oil- and gas-producing regions of the
Caspian Sea basin and the Persian Gulf. Its urge is not to procure
energy for its own use, but to dominate the flow of energy to others.
In particular, Moscow seeks a monopoly on the transportation of Central
Asian gas to Europe via Gazprom's vast pipeline network; it also wants
to tap into Iran's mammoth gas fields, further cementing Russia's
control over the trade in natural gas.
The danger, of course, is that such endeavors, multiplied over time,
will provoke regional arms races, exacerbate regional tensions, and
increase the danger of great-power involvement in any local conflicts
that erupt. History has all too many examples of such miscalculations
leading to wars that spiral out of control. Think of the years leading
up to World War I. In fact, Central Asia and the Caspian today, with
their multiple ethnic disorders and great-power rivalries, bear more
than a glancing resemblance to the Balkans in the years leading up to
What this adds up to is simple and sobering: the end of the world as
you've known it. In the new, energy-centric world we have all now
entered, the price of oil will dominate our lives and power will reside
in the hands of those who control its global distribution.
In this new world order, energy will govern our lives in new ways and
on a daily basis. It will determine when, and for what purposes, we use
our cars; how high (or low) we turn our thermostats; when, where, or
even if, we travel; increasingly, what foods we eat (given that the
price of producing and distributing many meats and vegetables is
profoundly affected by the cost of oil or the allure of growing corn
for ethanol); for some of us, where to live; for others, what
businesses we engage in; for all of us, when and under what
circumstances we go to war or avoid foreign entanglements that could
end in war.
This leads to a final observation: The most pressing decision facing
the next president and Congress may be how best to accelerate the
transition from a fossil-fuel-based energy system to a system based on
climate-friendly energy alternatives.
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security
studies at Hampshire College and the author of Resource Wars
and Blood and
Oil. Consider this essay a preview of his
newest book, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New
Geopolitics of Energy, which has just been published by
The real experience
Once in my life I
was in New York and,
of course, I visited the art galleries. There were a number of
paintings I was very excited to see and others which I cared less
about. To my surprise the paintings that I enjoyed most were not the
ones I expected to like. The expected favourites were enjoyable but no
more enjoyable then I expected. But there were others that floored me.
The ones that I expected to glance at and walk on but that caught me.
So some of the paintings that I was not that interested in became the
ones that interested me the most.
I was familiar with the images of these surprising paintings. What I
was not familiar with was their size and the way they were painted.
In art books and prints for walls etc. there is a standard range of
sizes. Monet's water lilies in a book is nothing like the really thing
taking up an expanse of wall space. The water seems to have depth and
movement in the really thing; it takes your breath away. On the printed
page, the impression is blur and boring. When you walk past the real
painting, you walk past shimmering reflections.
At the other end of the scale was Dali paintings. I was not prepared
for how small they were. The surrealist messages of Dali's painting had
always left me cold (and still do). But what had never been clear in
reproductions was the tiny scale of the painting. Was it done with a
three-haired brush? The paintings were like little sparkling jewels of
dyslexic, I am
interested to learn that a similar fraction of the population has as
much the same problems with numbers as dyslexics have with words. And I
am interested, but not surprised, that changes in the way
arithmetic/mathematics was taught that occurred in the 50s was as
disadvantageous for dyscalculics as the loss of phonetics at about that
time was to dyslexics.
It turns out that we have at least three different mechanisms for
dealing with numbers. It is very complicated and includes different
areas of the brain. So like reading/writing different parts of the
brain have to work together.
First, we have an inbuilt system that can recognize immediately groups
up to and usually including four objects. The concepts of these first
numbers do not require words or symbols or counting. We also seem to be
born with a number line which gets more approximate with higher and
higher numbers. This line even seems to have the low end of the left
and the high end of the right. The concepts of addition and subtraction
are there although it is only accurate for small numbers.
(Multiplication and division are not inborn concepts). We have to learn
to do arithmetic accurately with larger numbers but can do it
approximately without instruction.
Second, we have counting. This is a language thing. This allows us to
move further up the number line without approximation by having a
series of names. Once the series is learnt, it can be used to identify
groups by counting and using the last number as the number representing
the group. These names can also by given symbols that are visual rather
than linguistic. The same principle applies, they are a series that can
be used to count, to compare quantities, to add and subtract above the
basic few numbers.
Finally, we can bring logic to bear on numbers. Then we can manipulate
the visual symbols to acquire other concepts. I don't know where in all
this are the problems that dyscalculics have. I expect it will not be
any easier to understand than the problems of dyslexics.
All this reminds me of a little pet theory of Harry's. The decimal and
metric systems have all tens and nothing else in groupings. But older
systems were very different. Take the units of length: inch, foot,
yard, fathom, chain, furlong, mile. No relationship is repeated: 12
inches to a foot, 3 feet to a yard, 2 yards to a fathom, 11 fathoms to
a chain, 10 chains to a furlong, 8 furlongs to a mile. To a mind that
is thinking in mathematical symbols, all these units are confusing. To
a mind that is thinking more intuitively, the repetition of 10 is
without any reference to real distances is confusing. A furlong, for
example, is the distance between rests and any plowman can judge how
far he can get before the oxen have to stop. The reason all this came
to my mind is the score. Shepherds used to look at a field of sheep and
say something like, "There's about 4 score and 6". They would be right
within a few sheep. 4 score and 6 is 86 but there might be 84 or 89.
The shepherd did not count the sheep - he counted the scores of sheep.
And then he counted the ones that were not part of scores. That is a
lot faster then counting to 86 (if, of course, you have learnt to do
it) and a lot more accurate if the sheep are moving about. They would
not move much while you counted to 4 and they might move too much while
you counted to 80.
once watched a TV program about a
man planning a feast in Papua New Guinea. It was a long time ago and I
cannot trace the program. My memory of it may be a bit faulty but it
was such a revelation to me at the time that I have what seems a clear
vision of it in my mind.
This man wearing a T-shirt with 'Do it in the Road' written across it
was explaining to the camera the process of arranging a big feast. He
did most of the planning sitting on his haunches in the forest. As the
documentary unfolded, the enormous nature of the plan that was being
prepared emerged. Years later, when I was implementing a large computer
system, I used to tell myself when things seemed to be racing toward
disaster that it could not be more complicated than the feast of
The basic idea was that during his life, to this point, he had done
favours for others so that now he could call in all his markers at once
for the big feast. The guests would be housed, fed and entertained for
about 4 days and each would go home with a gift. When you had a feast,
you got the prestige and status for your feast and were a cut above
those that had never had one or who had had a smaller one. Our hero was
going to be a very big man because he was planning to give the local
Member of Parliament a Landrover. The MP would of course accept his
invitation once he realized that there was a Landrover in it. And the
MPs important friends would come too and make it a feast to remember.
There would be a hundred or more people at the feast.
The preparations included pigs that would be coming from lot of people
who owed him something. They would have to be fed after they arrived
until they were either cooked or taken away as a gift. His family had
to plant a much larger garden for the feast and feeding the pigs. The
arrangements for the pigs to arrive had to be planned so that they
didn't all arrive at once, not too late for the feast and not so early
that he ran out of food for them. He himself had been raising pigs like
mad for a few years and there was already a strain on the family's
ability to look after pigs. He spent a lot of his time on the pigs and
the Landrover but there was a myriad of other details.
Do-it-in-the-Road was planning the logistics of this and making
adjustments to his plans for unforeseen opportunities and hitches. He
was dealing with some sharp learning curves to do with the interface
with city life in getting together cash and buying the Landrover. He
used great skill in forecasting and negotiating and trading and
communicating and conning and…whatever was required.
Everyday he spent time in the forest planning. He sat there on his
heels and thought. He had no lists, no calendar, no schedules, no
calculator, no abacus, no diagrams, no project management program on a
computer, no minutes of meetings, no assistants, no whiteboard. He had
nothing but what he could remember and manipulate in his own head. He
accomplished his feast; it was a success; he attained the status. And
he deserved the status. He was in his own way a real genius. Really, he
was an illiterate, innumerate GENIUS.
I have run across a new phrase,
fractal wrongness, defined by a person called Keunwoo Lee. He is a
computer scientist and the definition is amongst some interesting
computer definitions on his website.
The state of being wrong at every conceivable scale of resolution. That
is, from a distance, a fractally wrong person's worldview is incorrect;
and furthermore, if you zoom in on any small part of that person's
worldview, that part is just as wrong as the whole worldview.
Debating with a person who is fractally wrong leads to infinite
regress, as every refutation you make of that person's opinions will
lead to a rejoinder, full of half-truths, leaps of logic, and outright
lies, that requires just as much refutation to debunk as the first one.
It is as impossible to convince a fractally wrong person of anything as
it is to walk around the edge of the Mandelbrot set in finite time.
If you ever get embroiled in a discussion with a fractally wrong person
on the Internet--in mailing lists, newsgroups, or website forums--your
best bet is to say your piece once and ignore any
replies, thus saving yourself time.
When I read this to Harry for his amusement, he said, "Oh, how
frustratingly depressing and true!" It didn't seem to amuse him. But
personally I think that mentally labeling someone with this phrase will
make talking to them less frustrating.
If someone's understanding of 'life, the universe and everything' is
different from yours at a very deep metaphysical and epistemological
level - where can you both stand to have a conversation?
Coming in under the radar
There seems to be
that do not hit the popular press. Everyday I read a little list of
science articles and press releases from the previous day. Mostly I
just read the headlines, for some I read a sentence or two summary, and
for a few I read the approximately page-long press release. The
newspapers have the same or similar sources of raw science news to
follow up on for that day's science coverage. Every day I also look at
the headlines in the online versions of the BBC, Guardian, London
Times, Globe and Mail and sometimes other publications. There is a
pattern in science coverage. Medicine is covered most extensively.
Climate change, space exploration, education are favourites. Weird
sounding things are included such as new theories in particle physics
or unusual animal behaviour. But I see practically no articles on
The lack of information on nanotechnology is a mistake, we will regret
it. There are three reasons why the public should be exposed to news
about nanotechnology. First, like nuclear energy and gene cloning,
there are potential dangers to the technology and it probably needs to
be regulated by some publicly accountable body. Second, it will be a
very powerful area of engineering. It will make some things easy and
routine, that are not even conceivable today. Third, it is moving very
quickly and will soon become economically important. If it stays 'below
the radar' it will burst onto the scene and the public will be
surprised and unprepared.
The general idea is to make tools, machines and materials that are
extremely small - really, really tiny. The scale of 1 to 100 nanometers
is the scale of atoms and molecules. The diameter of a human hair is
about 80,000 nanometers. Currently there is an estimated $50 billion of
nanotechnology goods manufactured globally. There are over 500 products
on the markets (dietary supplements, skin products, electronic
devices). But 70% of American adults have heard little or nothing about
nanotechnology while only 6 % are knowledgeable on the subject. It has
been treated like an academic game, but now it is getting serious and
has momentum and money behind it.
"Efforts to inform the public have not kept pace with the growth of
this new technology area. This increases the danger that the slightest
bump -- even a false alarm about safety or health -- could undermine
public confidence, engender consumer mistrust, and, as a result, damage
the future of nanotechnology, before the most exciting applications are
realized. If they do not effectively engage a broad swath of the public
in steering the course of nanotechnology, government and industry risk
squandering a tremendous opportunity." - David Rejeski, director of the
Wilson Center's Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies.
I made a note of the nanotechnology items in this morning's ScienceDaily News and
found that someone had made a balloon that was 1 atom thick and the
'world's thinest'. Someone else had produced flexible nano antenna
arrays that were embedded in a plastic sheet. The sheets could capture
solar energy. A number of people are trying to marry DNA technology to
nanotechnology and the third new item this morning was that someone had
used DNA 'wires' and attached metal ions to make the world's smallest
Any one of these stories seems more interesting to the general public
than the stories that I found in the papers. I for one would like to
know what happens to the materials after a nanotechnology experiment is
over. Are they just poured down the sink and washed into the local
rivers? The benefits and risks are huge.
Recently it has been shown that some nano-particles can pass through
skin. "It's the strongest evidence yet indicating that some
nanoparticles are so small that they can actually seep through skin,
especially when the skin has been damaged. The health implications of
nanoparticles in the body are uncertain, said DeLouise, an assistant
professor of Dermatology and Biomedical Engineering and an expert on
the properties of nanoparticles. Other scientists have found that the
particles can accumulate in the lymph system, the liver, the nervous
system, and in other areas of the body. In her study, she found that
the particles accumulate around the hair follicles and in tiny skin
folds. DeLouise, a chemist, points out that her study did not directly
address the safety of nanoparticles in any way. "We simply wanted to
see if nanoparticles could pass through the skin, and we found that
they can under certain conditions," she said."
This could be as large an industrial revolution as steam, electricity
or computers. Keep your ears open for this subject.
have always liked the IgNobles. When
I hear the news that the Noble prizes are being awarded, I start
looking for news of the IgNobles. I read that a Japanese group won this
year's IgNoble prize for cognitive neuroscience. They showed that slime
mold could navigate a maze and find the shortest path between two
Although this (very smart, ha) slime mold was not the sort I knew, the
event did get me thinking about slime molds. Then Nikon announced their
prize winners for microscopic photography. And what did I find among
the photos? - my sort of slime mold, the cellular slime mold,
When I worked in John Ashworth's research group, I did a lot of feeding
and looking after D. discoideum. The idea was that this slime mold
could illuminate development because its development was so simple. As
long as there was bacterial food to eat, the organism lived as single
celled amoebas and they were independent of one another. When food was
scarce, the amoeba streamed together and formed a little slug-like
thing that moved to a good place. It then stopped and changed shape.
Finally a ball of spores rose up a stalk. The spores could turn into
amoebas when or where there was food. The development was about as
simple as possible: just two or three developed cell types in the
multi-cellular fruiting body and they developed from more of less
identical single independent cells in a short period of moving about as
The whole development was beautiful under the microscope from the
streaming aggregation to the mature fruiting bodies.