Truth and Reality

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:28 am

(Kind of a continued musing from the ‘conspiracy theory’ one below.) I wonder what responsibility those of us who, somewhat uncomfortably, wear the label of ‘postmodernists’1 bear for the current ‘reality-challenged’ mode of politics in the West? I know that my own postmodern ‘skepticism of grand narratives that claim to explain everything’ (my twist on Lyotard) makes me very reluctant to ever use the words ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ without the ‘scare quotes’ that tip a wink to the audience to let them know that I know truth and reality are constructed and contingent and situated in history and culture, and that I’m not taking these words at face value…

I think that approach really does have some value – for one thing, it allows me to see that those who claim to see the world differently from the way I see it aren’t lying or faking: their different positions in history and culture mean that, in some sense at least, they do live in a different reality from me. It allows me to challenge my own taken-for-granted beliefs and assumptions, and see whether they are serving my values, and in turn to challenge my values in terms of their effects in the world.

Dr Phil and Don Polkinghorne have this in common (if almost nothing else!) – they define the standards for judging a theory in terms of its results in the world, rather than in terms of its ‘rightness’ in any absolute sense. Dr Phil asks ‘so you’re right? how’s that working for you?’ – and often people realise they’ve broken their relationships and ruined their lives insisting on their rightness. (Douglas Coupland does a magical job exploring this in Hey Nostradamus!) My personal visual metaphor for this is a guy standing in the middle of a marked crosswalk, pointing at the stripes on the road, as an 18-wheeler ploughs into him: he’s right, but it’s not working that well for him2. Polkinghorne says:

The criterion for the acceptability of a knowledge claim is the fruitfulness of its implementation.The critical terminology of the epistemology of practice has shifted from metaphors of correctness to those of utility.(Polkinghorne,1992,p.162)

At the same time, I worry that this approach to thinking about life and the world leaves us completely at the mercy of those who are certain what is true and what is real. Some because ‘God told me’, some because they are constitutionally immune to complexity and ambiguity (this is by no means the same as being stupid) and some because they have recognised that with power and persuasion, they can decide and establish their own truth and reality.

  1. Or rather, at least in my case, see postmodern theory as one useful toy within a toybox (/me resists the urge to footnote a footnote, and simply notes that he prefers this metaphor to the more common ‘tools/toolbox’ and ‘lenses’ metaphors) of theoretical approaches to trying to understand our world in order to make it better.
  2. There’s a whole other argument there about what ‘works’ means in this context. I don’t mean in a purely selfish sense, so that ‘what works for me’ is a standard that allows me to use and abuse other people to get my way. ‘What works’ is what makes the world a better place for me and for other people, both around me and in my country and in other countries – if my ‘good life’ costs someone else theirs, it doesn’t really count as good. There’s an ethics tradition dating back to at least Plato for use in thinking about this stuff.

Polkinghorne, D.E. (1992). Postmodern epistemology of practice. In Steinar Kvale (Ed.), Psychology and Postmodernism. London: Sage.


Conspiracy Theory

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:19 pm

It’s the perfect dismissal, the perfect conversation-stopper: ‘that’s just conspiracy theory stuff’. Heck, there’s even a bad Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts vehicle. It’s a term that’s been created over the past decade or so, and while it does have a use in naming a particular phenomenon, it also has uses in closing down debate.

Take the Bush’s Bulge story. There’s a strange phenomenon, and some legitimate questions to be asked. There’s some history with strange transmissions being recorded, speaking the words of Bush’s speeches a beat before he says them.

It would be easy enough for the White House or the campaign to deny that Bush was wearing any sort of device. Sure, they might get caught out later in a fib, but they could do it. Instead, they offered the following explanations:

  • Repeated calls to the White House and the Bush national campaign office over a period of three days, inquiring about what the president may have been wearing on his back during the debate, and whether he had used an audio device at other events, went unreturned.(Salon.com)
  • The president is “a regular guy,” White House chief of staff Andy Card told Salon before the second debate last week. “Maybe his suit had a little lump in it or something.”
  • Campaign spokeswoman Nicolle Devenish took the same line with the New York Times on Saturday: “It was most likely a rumpling of that portion of his suit jacket, or a wrinkle in the fabric.”
  • Campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel brushed aside a questioner in a Washington Post chat session by saying, “I think you’ve been spending a little too much time on conspiracy Web sites.”(my emphasis)
  • Pressed for a “legitimate explanation,” Mehlman said: “The president is an alien. You heard it here first. The president is an alien. That’s your quote of the day. He has been getting information from Mars. The shock of the debate will be the president’s alien past will be exposed, which is why that box is there.” (Ken Mehlman)(rest of his quote is here)
  • …we also put the question to Bush-Cheney spokesman Steve Schmidt and RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie: Why not put the story to rest by saying what caused the bulge? Both men laughed, Schmidt said “stop,” and then they walked away. (Salon.com)
  • “I don’t know what that is,” he said on “Good Morning America” on Wednesday, referring to the infamous protrusion beneath his jacket during the presidential debates. “I’m embarrassed to say it’s a poorly tailored shirt.” (George Bush)

In other words, their implicit message was ‘that’s just conspiracy theory stuff’. It’s a strategy to close down debate. Halliburton makes billions in no-bid contracts in Iraq while Dick Cheney is still receiving compensation from them? (And we now hear that, despite a damning auditor’s report, they’ll get to keep the money.) Make a link, and you’ll be told it’s ‘conspiracy theory’.

It’s an enormously useful meme. The hell of it is, to explain most of these things, even if our darkest imaginings were true, would require no secret cabal of old white men with cigars, no conspiracy. It simply requires sufficient arrogance to do these things brazenly – and the ability to dismiss any questions about them with a certain handy catch-phrase…

Yep, I think I broke the ‘Election Free’ pledge… 😉 Gotta break ’em good and hard!



Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:54 pm

In Australia we have the great tradition of the smoko. Even as less and less of us smoke, taking a short break for a coffee and a chat is still called ‘stopping for smoko’. Stephen King noticed the phenomenon, as people are increasingly banned from smoking in the office, of the 10 O’Clock People who congregate outside for a smoke. I notice it particularly here in Edmonton, because I still see them clustered outside, rugged up, hunched over the warmth of the cigarette tip when it’s -20o C (-4o F).

I passed a guy out for a smoke this afternoon, on a beautiful afternoon – blue sky, lots of sun, no wind and +4o C (39o F). And looked around me, and thought “Wow, this is pretty nice!” Our smoking colleagues take a break from work a few times a day, stand up, get the kinks out of their backs, and go outside in nature and look around. They chat with the other smokers, and just get a rest from work.

There are lots of stats on what ‘smoko’ costs employers. Thing is, time lost to taking a break is only a very minor one of these costs, and in fact most employees are entitled to a break every couple of hours anyway. I don’t know about you, but I tend to either work right through, or else go and get a coffee in the cafeteria. Why don’t I take a break and go outside? Not to the same corner where the smokers are, I guess, at least not every day, but if I’m outside, I’ll get all the benefits they get, plus fresh air!

So, non-smokers, I suggest we re-claim our smokos! Now, all we need is an unbearable craving that forces us to go outside every couple of hours, and we’re set!

Permanently self-conscious?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 4:50 pm

In case you don’t read it (and if not, why the hell not? the link is right there on the right of this page!), William Gibson quoted a paragraph of mine – not from here, but from the WGB forums – in his blog today for the second time in a few days. He prefaced it with ‘At the risk of making him permanently self-conscious, I’m going to quote Bravus again…’ Aisha asked in the forum ‘So… are you?’

Pretty much, yeah – but then, I’m pretty self-conscious at the best of times. It’s a character flaw (because it puts the focus on me) that tends to have helpful consequences, because I work pretty hard to be considerate and kind to people – not so much because I’m a good person, as because I’m conscious of my effect on others.

But he probably meant self-conscious in the sense that I might start composing very carefully crafted bon mots in order to be quoted again. I don’t think so… for one thing, although it’s incredibly gratifying to receive that kind of acknowledgement from someone whose work I deeply admire, it’s not something that can or should be actively sought. For another, particularly the one he quoted today seemed to me to be the very opposite of well-crafted: forum writing feels like a conversation to me, and it’s always fired off at great speed, and usually in response to something someone says.

So yeah, I’m pleased that he thought I captured something he wanted to say well, and of course it’s a buzz to get that kind of attention and exposure. But I’ll just keep doing what I do…

The loneliness of the long distance blogger

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:11 am

It’s not always easy to come up with something interesting and original every day! But with a blog and an audience comes a certain amount of pressure to produce, even if it’s self-imposed. Obviously at the beginning there was a bit of a storehouse of ideas that had been lying around in my head for quite a while with nowhere to go, so it was easy, but continuing to deliver things that are at least somewhat original, topical and interesting over a longer period is a challenge. I’m not going to go with the ‘it’s hard work’ mantra here at all, just try to explain a little bit about the process.

So far I’ve tried to post something new pretty much every day. Looking back through the archive, I think there’s only one day without a new post since the beginning, and some days have up to three items. I’ve also tried to write original work most of the time, rather than just post a link and say ‘ain’t it cool’.

The way my brain tends to work – and people who have worked with me in the past will attest to this – is that I’ll go quiet for a while as the ideas are churning around in the subconscious1 (and usually I’ll be reading or gaming or whatever during that time), and then suddenly it will be the fertile time of the month and they’ll get a deluge of e-mails or whatever as the ideas bear fruit.

By trying to be more regular and even so far in this blog, I’ve kind of got away from that pattern – either I’ll be struggling to think of something, if it’s a fallow period, or I’ll be coming up with half a dozen things, and editing out half of them to keep things consistent. It’ll be easier when I’m doing something other than sitting in front of a computer inputting survey results (I’m on to the students and teachers now) all day.

Next week I’ll be in Toronto – Tuesday at the Bell University Laboratories annual conference and Wednesday and Thursday at CANARIE‘s “Showing Results, Sharing Knowledge” conference. I’ll be taking Alex, my younger daughter, with me, and we’ll be hitting the Ontario Science Centre as well as the conferences. Then on about the 14th of November I’ll be off to South Africa for a couple of weeks. Sharing the impressions and ideas from new places is part of the reason I wanted to start this in the first place.

So, the long and short of it is, updates might be a little less regular from now on – they’ll probably average out at about one item a day, but there might be a two day gap and then a gush of new stuff. (That will happen particularly because it takes the best part of 2 days to fly from here to South Africa.) You can be kept up to date by getting the rss feed (Sage under Firefox was a revelation to me, thanks digitalprimate), or just checking in… And please do comment and join the conversation!

  1. I’m not a convinced Jungian, but I tend to say ‘the subconscious’ rather than ‘my subconscious’ because often it does feel like getting in touch with a ‘collective unconscious’.


Voting systems, democracy and the 2-party system

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:11 am

I know, this is skirting the edges of my ‘election-free zone’ pledge. I think I’ve been very well-behaved in ignoring the US election, even though I’m very interested in it, so I’m going to indulge myself a bit… And this is not at all about who you should vote for, or either of the candidates.

The voting system in Australia is preferential. That is, rather than just choose a particular candidate, voters rank candidates in order from highest preference to lowest. (Like Canada, and unlike the US, in Australia the vote is for the local member of parliament, and the party with the greatest number of seats forms the government, and that party’s leader becomes the Prime Minister. This is because Australia and Canada are constitutional monarchies, with the Queen of England as their nominal head of state. In the US the president is the head of state, and is directly elected.)

The US presidential ballot is based on a slightly complex system where voters in each state vote directly for president, but they don’t elect the president, they are represented by members of the electoral college on a state-by-state basis, and the electoral college then elects the president. Different states have different numbers of electoral college votes. The members of the electoral college are really only morally bound to follow the wishes of the voters, and actually can vote the other way if they wish. Anyway, this is too much detail for the broad point I want to make here.

Because of the way the US system works, with these kind of direct votes, the result is due to a simple count of the raw number of votes for each presidential candidate in a state. The small party candidates (Badnarik of the Libertarian party, Nader of the Reform Party) only get to have electoral college votes if they win a state outright. This never happens.

What that means is that, in the US, a vote for a small party is essentially a wasted vote, in terms of effecting the outcome. It might ‘send a message’, but it really disenfranchises anyone who chooses to vote for a small party. In turn, this reduces the vote for small parties, and marginalises them.

In Australia, you can vote for your most preferred candidate, then rank another one second, and so on. If your number 1 candidate doesn’t ‘make the cut’, your vote is then transferred to your number 2 choice, and so on until a winner is found. It sounds complicated, but it’s really not:

Bush 5
Kerry 3
Badnarik 1
Nader 4
John Doe 2

If Badnarik has too few votes to be a contender, this vote then goes to Doe. If he has too few, it goes to Kerry, and so on.

What this means is that a vote for a minor party is not wasted: at the very recent Australian election the Green Party polled about 10% of the vote. The Australian Democrats (not like the US Democrats in much except name) used to poll at those levels, but they got into bed with the government and were punished at the polling booth.

The US system is very well designed to perpetuate the 2-party system and limit alternatives. If that’s what you want, blessings to you – if not, what are you gonna do about it?


Ecological thinking, propaganda and education

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:48 pm

Heard an interview on the radio today with Rex Weyler, co-founder of Greenpeace. A listener asked a question about ‘who does Greenpeace represent’, and he said that, as well as its members, the organisation aims to represent the trees and hills and wolves. He also went into a rant about ‘politicians will always promise us the short-term fixes and the short-term thinking, and go after the most votes’.

I guess that’s true, but it seems to me that what that means is that education is the key: if the people who vote learned to think long-term, and to think in ecological terms, then it would be automatic that the politicians would follow the votes in that direction. If everyone cared about the environment – not as the sole issue, but as one with a high weighting – and voted that way, change would come.

That raises a number of issues. One is that the ideology of the last few years has been to privatise and to reduce government control and regulation, so that even if governments have certain values, their power to implement those in practice has been reduced. That trend itself might need to be reversed over time (back around to the ‘Where to from here?’ post below). Another is that democracy, for all its virtues, is very bad at this kind of discernment: because we have to vote for a political party, they can claim to have a mandate for everything in their platform, even if we like them on balance (or at least, dislike them less than the alternative!) but disagree strongly with one of their policies. Perhaps we need better mechanisms for clarifying our views for our leaders.

Education is the key. But there’s always the fear (especially if you happen to teach in a school in a logging town!) that educating students about ecological thinking will be seen as indoctrination, as ‘green propaganda’ – even as anti-industry, anti-employment education. I think in a sense that’s a legitimate fear – it’s always dangerous when education becomes indoctrination into a particular set of unquestioned beliefs and practices.

On the other hand, it could be argued (and I want to argue it!) that our current ways of thinking about ourselves, other living things and the ecosystem as a whole are fundamentally flawed. When we conceive of the world around us in terms of ‘resources’, and in terms of individual, decontextualised objects (trees, hills, wolves), we think in ways that drive us toward the very kinds of short-term thinking that is damaging the world.

Incorporating ecological literacy, or ecological modes of thinking about not only the ‘out in the woods’ natural world or the ‘Amazon rainforest’ natural world but ‘in this room’, ‘in my garden’, ‘downtown’ as spaces where humans live in connection with natural systems and other living things, can be argued to just be a more realistic portrayal of the way the world really is. Or, if you have postmodern problems with that kind of realism, call it a better adapted, more survival-enhancing way of thinking.

Including notions like ecological footprint in school science curricula (and dividing school into subjects when life doesn’t come like that is another rant for another day) has the potential to make change not only possible but inevitable. It’s not about indoctrinating children, it’s about developing, along with them, better ways of understanding the world and our place in it.

Why Parents Think Physics Class is Valuable

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:01 am

My job for today is to enter the data from a bunch of surveys I did of the parents of physics students in five Edmonton high schools and analyse the results. The surveys ask about the parents’ attitudes to physics education and physics teachers: Why is learning physics important? Who is responsible for making sure homework is done? How do kids learn physics best? What are the characteristics of good physics teachers? You’re very welcome to provide your answers to those four questions too…

So, I have 121 surveys from three schools so far (more to come from two more schools). All items are on a 5 point Likert scale, with 1 as ‘Strongly Disagree’ and 5 as ‘Strongly Agree’. None of the scales are ‘forced choice’ – that is, someone could rank all four elements on the first scale as 5 if they wanted to.

The first scale is about why parents think it’s important for their kids to study physics. The item is “Studying Physics is important because it…” and the four responses are:

  1. prepares students for entrance to good university courses
  2. helps students understand the physical world
  3. prepares students for worthwhile, satisfying, well paid jobs
  4. develops students’ knowledge, skills and abilities in order to fulfil their potential

Graph - Reasons for Studying Physics

The second scale only had two items, and was about who is responsible for seeing that homework is completed. The mean score for ‘the school’ was 3.10 and for ‘the student’ was 4.61. Maybe not all that surprising, but when I do the ‘by school’ analysis I’ll be interested to see whether parents in more exclusive schools place more responsibility on the school (my hunch).

The third scale also had two items, and was “Homework is for…” The mean score for ‘helping students develop good work habits and skills in independent learning’ was 4.45, and the mean for ‘giving students repeated practice in the kinds of questions they might get in exams’ was 3.82.

The fourth scale was about how students learn best in physics. The mean for ‘doing lots of past exam questions and learning how to answer the questions’ was 3.23, and the mean for ‘working on complex problems that have a practical, real world context’ was 4.19. This is both encouraging and disheartening: great that the parents see it this way, sad that so many physics classes don’t reflect it.

The final scale was “The best Physics teachers…” The possible responses are:

  1. know a lot about the [external] physics exam, past questions and strategies
  2. have good relationships with students
  3. gain students’ respect
  4. know a lot about physics

Attributes of the best physics teachers

(You can definitely critique the research design, the questions and my stats prowess if you wish – but it’s too late to change any of it, so you’ll just make me depressed! I should also point out that these surveys are one tiny piece of a much larger study that is mainly focused on using video analysis to understand how teachers explain physics ideas to students. This is really just some demographic data about who the students are, and will be analysed by school later to see if there are interesting differences.)

Only Forward – Michael Marshall Smith

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:31 am

I’ve submitted this review of one of my favourite novels to Slashdot but it’s still pending.

When I try to describe Michael Marshall Smith‘s Only Forward to people, the one-liner is usually “starts out cyberpunk and gets much weirder from there”. That doesn’t completely do it justice, but it’s a place to start. It’s impossible for me to understand, based on this amazing debut novel, why Smith isn’t a huge star in the Gibson/Stephenson/Stirling orbit. It’s hard to explain – guess it’s just the vicissitudes of the market, and perhaps the fact that his stuff is just a little too strange for even the SF crowd. That and the fact that it’s pretty difficult to fit into a genre label – is it science fiction, fantasy or psychological thriller? His Spares is also wonderful, but just doesn’t display quite the same control as Only Forward. The author seems to have moved on to ‘straighter’ (though that’s a relative term) crime fiction published under the name ‘Michael Marshall’.

Anyway, enough fanboyish gushing, on with the review. Stark, the kind-of-noirish, deadpan first person protagonist, lives in a highly urbanised near-future world divided into Neighbourhoods where likeminded souls have congregated and created the world just the way they like it. Colour Neighbourhood features computer-controlled streetscapes that change to match the clothing of passersby, and form complex patterns that can only be seen from above (almost no-one flies). Sound Neighbourhood is silent, NatSci is full of geeks, Stable is a little utopia – if you like life predictable – and Red is… Not a Nice Neighbourhood. There’s even a Cat Neighbourhood, populated entirely by cats.

The beginning of Chapter One (not the prologue, which is just strange and evocative) competes with the Deliverator introduction of Snow Crash for funny coolness:

…I was still sitting there, waiting to die, waiting to fossilise, waiting for the coffee in the kitchen to evolve enough to make a cup of itself and bring it through to me, when the phone rang.
It was touch and go whether I answered it. It was right on the other side of the room, for Christ’s sake. I wasn’t geared up for answering the phone, not this morning. … So I let myself sag gently to the floor and climbed up it like a mountain. I established a base camp about a third of the way across, and had a bit of a rest there…

Stark is a kind of private eye, and maybe something more, so when he gets the call that tells him Alkland, a prominent executive from Centre Neighbourhood, has gone missing, he takes the case – although mainly to please Zenda, the Actioneer he has a bit of a crush on… It turns out that going missing is the least of Alkland’s problems.

The book is scary, horrific and mind-blowing by turns, but a lot of the time it’s laugh-out-loud funny. The descriptions of Centre Neighbourhood are priceless: Zenda is the Under-Supervisor of Really Hustling Things Along in the Department of Doing Things Especially Quickly, the monorail attendant is reading Total Quality Management and getting tips from the Actioneer passengers about how to keep his ticket stubs really neat and the monorail suggests productive things you could be doing during your trip. The descriptions of the other Neighbourhoods are equally funny and creative, but there are no great lumps of exposition and scenery description – the world is exotic, but Smith describes it so casually that the story is always at the front of your brain.

Smith plays with dreams, reality and the subjective nature of our experiences (you’ll never drive down a new road and then back up again, or see the ocean from a plane, again without thinking of this book), and for me, at least, the way I think about time, memory and the effects of both on our present has been deeply changed by this book.

What’s good?

The humour, the inventiveness of the world, and the character of Stark are all great, and the Neighbourhoods are just brilliant. At the end, though, what stays with you is a much deeper emotional impact and a slightly different perspective on the world… and a desire to re-read this book soon.

What’s not so good?

If I have to pick a flaw, it’s that the first part feels a bit picaresque (just one damn incident after another), and the plot really only comes together later in the book. It does, though – those who hate Stephenson’s ending should enjoy this one.


Probably not a novel for everyone, or even everyone at Slashdot, but if you enjoy William Gibson and Neal Stephenson – Gibson for the loas and Stephenson for glossolalia – you’re likely to enjoy Only Forward. The best referent, though, is probably Clive Barker: like him, Michael Marshall Smith re-enchants the world.


Religion. Uh, Good Lord, What Is It Good For?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:16 am

the stats on divorce and spousal and child abuse are almost exactly the same for religious people (at least for Christians) as for non-religious people. if religion doesn’t make us better people, more able to build loving, supportive families and protect them, what is it good for? or is this just what we’d expect – we’re all human? anyone who can add some stats for other religions in a comment, that’d be awesome… it’s not about starting a holy war, it’s about trying to understand


Google as a metaphor for my brain

Filed under: — Bravus @ 4:40 pm

So, in theory, what I was always supposed to do was be very organised – put all my Word documents in folders and sub-folders with clear, self-explanatory names so that I could find things easily. Do the same with my e-mail messages. Of course, if you’ve seen my office (maybe I’ll post a photo or two on Monday), you know that ‘organised’ is not my strong suit!

Instead, everything pretty much ends up in one or two folders – something like 15,000 e-mail messages are currently in my Inbox at work, and a couple of hundred documents are in the My Documents folder. And I use a search function – the one Windows includes for the hard drive, the one in Netscape mail for the e-mail. It’s exactly the same as using a search engine like Google to find exactly what I need in the seething chaos of the web. (And a quick shoutout to Fashionpolice, the ‘searchstring sensei’ of the William Gibson Board.)

Now there’s Google Desktop Search too, bringing the simplicity of Google to searching the desktop, and Google’s Gmail1. Gmail in particular is the perfect exemplar of the new paradigm – you get a single 1 GB Inbox, and just leave everything in it, and search to find the message, address or whatever that you’re looking for. All I need now is a paper-based search engine so I can find the documents in my desk as easily!

This is all interesting for its own sake – or at least, I find it interesting – but it’s also intriguing as a metaphor for how we think about our minds. Theories like the constructivism of Jean Piaget or George Kelly assume a very organised, file folder like structure for our brains, with every memory and piece of knowledge stored in its place, in a highly ordered hierarchical way. What if, instead, our brains just do it like Gmail? Throw a huge amount of storage and a really great search engine at the problem? What would that way of imagining our minds mean for our theories of mind and memory?

1. Some people are concerned about the privacy implications of Gmail and Google Desktop Search – read the agreements you sign carefully. Personally, I’m relying on security through obscurity. 😉

Why watch TV?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:12 am

Scott Rosenberg’s recent ‘No TV? No problem’ reassured me that I’m not alone as a non-TV-watching freak. It’s not that I think TV is an evil influence, or anything like that, and it’s not that I feel superior to anyone who does watch it (well, maybe a little ;)) I just really don’t have time. I do think TV contributes to the debasement of discourse in our culture, and that it works very well in aiding advertisers’ constant quest to make us dissatisfied with our lives and ourselves, and to convince us that we can buy satisfaction, but that’s also true of other media.

By the time I got around to actually writing this, instead of just putting in a header as a placeholder, my buddy LS87DS had already commented. He finds a lot of the same things – between work, actually having a life and talking to the wife and kids, and playing on the net, there’s just no time for TV. He also asked ‘Is switching to a different medium any better?’

I think in terms of evil influences, probably not – the net is at least as depraved in all sorts of ways as TV, and considerably more so in some ways. I think the difference is in the level of control available: sure, there’s the remote control to switch channels with a TV, but no matter what channel I choose I have to sit through their sequencing of information. With the net, I just have a whole lot more control over what comes in and in what order. And the ads on the net are parallel, not serial, and therefore much easier to ignore.

The other piece is how communicative this medium is. TV is by definition one-directional: the info flows from it to us (and the cash, via diverse channels, flows from us back to it). Even books are pretty much input-only media, whereas, although I do read a lot of text news type sites on the net, the web ‘places’ I really value are bulletin boards and chat rooms – places where I get to talk back. (And I’m pleased by the way people are already taking the opportunity of the Comments button to talk back to me in this blog.)

Part of Rosenberg’s point was that the content density of TV news is just way too low to be efficient: between the fluff and the filler stories, and plenty of teasers about what’s coming up next, and the ads, it takes an hour of news to get the info I could get by scanning the front page of the newspaper.

TV seems to be maintaining its dominance – and, of course, converging with the net as the net gets more video and TV gets more interactive – so maybe in a few years this issue will be moot: the distinction between TV and the Internet will have vanished entirely. But for the time being, I don’t have time to watch TV…


Do you think I’m rich or sumpin?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:59 pm

(This topic was suggested by my wise friend HawK of #desperado)

I really want to try to avoid making posts here that are just personal whining, or even appear to be – although it’s about me in the sense that I’m writing it, if it’s not about you too in some sense then it’s just wanking. This post may test that line… 😉

I was thinking today about how computers are changing the nature of work. The simplest example is how much more of the administrative and secretarial work I do on my desktop now, rather than have done by a secretarial pool or whatever. There are definitely benefits to that – I’d far rather type and edit something myself than have someone else do it – but it also has downsides. One is the loss of secretarial jobs. Another is that, when there’s something that needs to be done, like photocopying or other time-consuming jobs that don’t require my specific skills, there’s no-one else around to do them.

An extension of this trend is the devolution of all sorts of accounting tasks to the desktop – my university is in the process of changing the systems so that individual professors do the tracking of their own grant funding and expenditure, and manage their own professional development accounts. Again, I like this because it gives me more control and more immediate feedback on how everything’s going, but again, it loses jobs for people who are much better at that stuff than I am, and it also takes my time away from actually doing research and redirects it into managing and accounting. I’m pretty good at research, and I suck at accounting.

The final one, and this is the one that has me frustrated at the moment, is this assumption that all professors have deep pockets and empty credit cards with big credit limits, and can afford to pay for travel, computers, conferences etc themselves with their own money and then be reimbursed at the university’s leisure. Quite apart from the iniquitous interest rates on credit cards (that’s another rant for another day), this puts a whole lot of risk back onto the individual: if something goes wrong and the reimbursement isn’t processed, it’s the individual who ends up in default on his or her credit card.

Add that to the fact that lots of young academics have been students for a very long time, and therefore have ridiculous debt levels and not a lot of liquidity, and it’s a recipe for frustration. Oh, I’m in no position to whine, I fully realise that – I’m in the process of trying to buy a new G5, so the fact that that’s a tiny bit bumpy is minor.

But I think this ties back around to the ‘Where to from here?’ post a few days ago. The trend is continuing toward getting more work out of less people, and toward devolving responsibility onto the individual employee. Has this trend gone as far as it will, and might we start to see some form of loyalty from employers toward employees returning, or will it get to the point where we’re all independent contractors who lease our desks from the company? I’m hoping there’s a new paradigm coming, but I can’t spot it on the horizon yet…



Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:27 am

I just changed the font on the blog – the ‘Lucida Grande’ was prettier (even if it sounds like something you’d get at Starbucks), but the characters seemed too close together to make it easy to read for some people, so I’ve switched to plain old Arial Narrow. If anyone knows of a pretty, legible font that all commonly used browsers will render, let me know… Edit: (And I promise this is the last tweaking news for today!) It turned out the problem wasn’t the font, but a setting that was deliberately reducing the spaces between letters. I changed the font back and tweaked that setting a bit instead. Let me know if it’s hard to read.

Now working on how to tweak it to make the maroon header banner go all the way across the page. Edit: “Mission Accomplished” (oh-oh)

Flu Vaccine, Deus Ex, Grey Death

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:20 am

Anyone played Deus Ex? In the game, the issue is a plague for which the vaccine is in very short supply. Only the government and those with connections can get any. Of course the current flu vaccine panic in the US is not the same, but I’ve already seen the editorial cartoons asking how the country would cope with a bioweapon attack if it’s in this much trouble just vaccinating the population against the flu. Congress got some, and apparently so (for some odd reason) did prisoners in Maine and Missouri, and students at Louisiana State University. Not a conspiracy theory, just one more sign of palsy in the great Invisible Hand that directs the market to produce the greatest good for the greatest number.


Too Damn Cool

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:27 am

Slashdot Interview with Neal Stephenson



Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:48 pm

So, I’m in the process of applying for jobs at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, and Stanford University in Palo Alto, California1, 2. We’ve been in Edmonton for four years, and my feet are starting to get itchy.

I’m not sure why, but that seems to happen – get used to the new job and the new city (and in this case, country, continent, hemisphere), and then start scanning the classifieds for the next place. Maybe if we live in Montreal for a few years we’ll all learn to speak fluent French, and that will open up the other half of the world – France, Switzerland, West Africa, French Polynesia.

I’ll always have an identity as an Australian, and I definitely want to retire somewhere warm, with beaches, but for the time being, the world is home. I think this is different to the immigrant experience – it seems to me that the Asian and Indian immigrants who come to Canada are most often looking to send down new roots into the strange soil, and make the new country home, whereas at the moment every place just feels like a perch to me.

I’m not sure why that is. I was born in Sydney, lived there until I was 6, then moved about 120 km north and lived in one small town until I was 26. Maybe I’m living in reaction to feeling too rooted down as a child? I dunno, that seems too Freudian. I think it’s really just a sense of the possibilities.

Or maybe it’s just part of the postmodern condition? I know everyone in Edmonton seems to have come from somewhere else – usually somewhere in eastern Canada. I’ve heard plenty of Aussie accents in Banff and Vancouver, and I think Australians might be more rootless than the citizens of most other countries. There’s definitely something in it for me about striving to succeed, too – by moving around to better jobs, rather than just serving out the time in one place, I can go further faster in my career.

But maybe part of it is also feeling connected all over the world, by this cyborg extended nervous system we call the Internet. I have friends in maybe 20 countries, so nowhere really feels too foreign any more. And maybe I’m too utopian about it, but that seems like a good thing: give it a couple more decades of rootlessness and of people falling in love, and race won’t even be a viable category system any more…

  1. Hmm, I don’t think anyone from my current job reads this, but if you do, ‘Hi’ – I always said I’d be around for a while and then be moving on. I’ll let you know what’s happening as soon as I know!
  2. …and if anyone from McGill or Stanford is reading this (a) compete hard! and (b) I promise I’ll hang around longer than 4 years 😉

Where to from here?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:51 pm

Mary Gentle’s supremely wonderful book Ash 1, 2, among the many other things it does superlatively, includes an explanation of why miracles ceased in the Middle Ages. Leaving aside the heavily blogged discussion about President Bush’s take on reality (NYT login needed for the second link) (remember, this is an election-free zone), I’ve been thinking for a couple of years about where the next major wave of ideology to transform our lives will be coming from, and which direction that tsunami will wash us in.

Over the last few years, the ideology in most Western countries (I’ve lived in Australia and Canada and been a web-spectator of the US and the UK) has been all about markets and efficiency. What that has actually meant in real, human terms is a net transfer of quality of life from the workers to the bosses. This is not Marxist theory (of which I’m deeply skeptical), but simple reality: when ‘efficiency’ is defined as getting more work out of less workers, and cutting their wages, conditions and benefits, in order to increase the dividends for the shareholders, what else do you call it?

It also manifests in things like the quality of manufactured goods, and in built-in obsolescence – a generation or two ago, the things we bought were engineered to last for years, and this also meant that they were beautiful to lok at and touch, and to heft. Now they’re engineered in such a way as to land in a landfill as quickly as possible, in order to make way for Next Year’s Model.

Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t the plea of a ‘back to the good old days’ social conservative – I know that the good old days weren’t so good, particularly if you were black or gay or female or … We have to go forward, ‘cos the path backward is no longer open, and wouldn’t be attractive if it was.

It seems to me that we’ve gone about as far as we can in this direction – although in my darker moments I fear maybe not – and we’re way overdue for a paradigm shift, a scientific revolution. I don’t think it’s hippie ethics, and it might be hacker ethics, if we ever manage to de-demonise hackers. (And in a tad more non-Marxism, the RIAA/MPAA/Disney axis of evil is struggling to control the means of creative production, but that’s another rant for another day.)

Think about this scenario for just a second. Fusion power is discovered, so energy is abundant, cheap and clean3. Nanotechnology turns out to have all the promise we dreamed of and more, so we can transform any material at hand (landfills, rocks) into anything we want (tech toys, food)4. In the present set of arrangements and ideologies, this would be simply unacceptable: “what does it mean that I have everything I need and want, if there’s not someone somewhere who doesn’t?”, “How do I retain exclusivity in an economy that includes everyone?”

We’re doing lots of great scientific research on fusion and nanotechnology – who’s doing the research on finding a more mature way of thinking that will allow us to cope with the results? And just perhaps claw back some standard of living for us working schmucks in the mean time…

  1. this link is to the British, all-in-one-volume version, which I bought in Canada, or possibly South Africa. Try to get that one if you can, or else buy all four volumes of the American version and read them in one huge (1100 or so pages) gulp – you’ll lose almost everything that makes it wonderful if you read it spaced out. And you must read every word, even what seems like dry academic notes breaking up the story. Trust me on this.
  2. I’ll try to avoid too many spoilers, while still addressing the issue.
  3. I know, I know, it’s more complicated than that – we built a big thick greenhouse gas blanket, and now we’re going to create a fusion-energy Dutch Oven under it? But bear with me here, I’m playing.
  4. And we managed to avoid the grey goo problem.

US Election Free Zone

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:04 am

Although I’m awfully tempted, I see little point in adding my Australian-living-in-Canada two cents worth to the swirling masses of verbiage that permeate the wired world about the US election. Besides, I talk to lots of lovely, smart, thoughtful Americans online, but I’ve never yet known one of them to change his/her political allegiance, so talking about it seems kinda pointless. So I hereby declare this blog an Election-free Zone: I won’t talk about it (unless I do (yep, guess I’m a flipflopper (arrgghh, the pervasiveness of that content-less meme drives me insane (dang, there I go, talking about it)))). Anyway, it’ll all be over in 2 weeks – or possibly 2 months.


Broadband Networking as Craft

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:37 pm

At a CANARIE conference in Vancouver last week, the most cyberpunk thing I saw was Open Net Craft.

It’s a set of instructions, available on a CD, for a small business person or group in a remote or rural town in British Columbia to bring in their own broadband access to their community. It’s dedicated to the idea that it’s done as craft, not as science or technology – it’s all about simple howtos that a lay person can handle. There’s a real commitment to taking the tech, money and knowledge from the ‘city slickers’ and expensive consultants and putting it in the hands of the communities – and it’s working.

“The street finds its own uses for things” – William Gibson