30/1/2005

Humans! What’s to be done about them?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 5:47 pm

War

Enormous SUVs

Sims 2 Nude Patches

Stoner grannies

27/1/2005

Oops

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:40 pm

We all know it can happen, and we all try to avoid it, but it tends to happen anyway… Fire off the frustrated angry e-mail in the ‘back channel’ to a friend about someone else and then, with a despairing ‘NOOOOOOOOO‘, realise after it’s gone that we hit ‘reply all’ and it’s gone to the person we were talking about.

I just did it, so we’ll see what happens with the fallout. I’m working with a team in the US and Canada on a grant proposal, and one member of the team is kinda tough to get along with. She went to the funding agency today and basically managed to talk us out of a CN$1.8 million grant, trying to get things to happen her way against the consensus of the team, torpedoing a couple of years’ work in the process. I fired off the tantrum to another member of the team, but sent it to her as well by mistake.

The project may already have been dead as a result of her efforts, but I probably did make it worse. Still, those frustrations had been simmering for a long time – and the scary part was, if we’d got the grant, we’d have had to work closely with this person for the next 3 years.

Oh well, c’est la vie and mea culpa in the same breath.

Quiet Time…

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:03 pm

The blog might go a little quiet for the next little while compared to the usual posting frequency. The last two days I’ve marked assignments until 2 am then got up at 6 am again to prepare classes for the next day, then taught all day, then run around taking kids to music lessons and so on. Now I’ve come down with an evil cold as well, have to read a doctoral candidacy proposal (70 pages) tonight, then go to a science fair in which I play the dual roles of judge and Dad (not on the same project!) tomorrow, then go to the candidacy oral examination tomorrow afternoon, then prepare tomorrow night and preach at church on Saturday morning – then start preparing classes for next week.

So the blog hasn’t been abandoned, and it will be back with new, meaty, thoughtful content, but things might be a little quiet for the next few days… Of course, right now I’m off to the pub with my class!

26/1/2005

Soft Underbelly

Filed under: — Bravus @ 5:49 am

From Scott Rosenberg’s blog. read the first comment there too…

25/1/2005

Poly… put the kettle on?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:25 pm

Lorne sent me this link from a Calgary paper: Taboos tumbling down. Seems a touch on the redneck side to me, but I guess that’s Calgary… 😉 (And no reflection on Lorne is intended.)

My argument with the people who want to link gay marriage with bestiality, paedophilia, necrophilia or whatever has always been ‘it’s clearly not a fair analogy or a parallel case, because gay marriage is between consenting (human) adults and those others are not’. (And there are good genetic and health reasons for adult incest to be illegal.) Polygamy is a more complex case, though, because it is between consenting adults.

I’m inclined to just go with ‘who does it hurt?’ As Jon Stewart said about gay marriage: ‘they’re thinking about making it compulsory, aren’t they? Otherwise, why does anyone care?’ Assuming that it is indeed between consenting adults, and that none of the partners are horribly oppressed, who would polygamy really hurt?

When we talk about ‘polygamy’, we’re usually talking about ‘polygyny’ – one husband, more than one wife. Certainly that’s the Muslim and Mormon pattern, and the one the article is about. (And I wonder whether part of people’s opposition is just jealousy of those they think are getting more than their share of nookie! Maybe they forget that those guys also get more than their share of PMS and nagging!) But what about the other half of polygamy, polyandry – one wife, more than one husband? Maybe most guys are much less keen on that… but if we’re talking about polygamy, shouldn’t it be on the table?

One good woman is all I feel competent to cope with, anyway! And I’m pretty sure she feels the same way…

Feel free to disagree with me, but my argument to the ‘defenders of the family’ is always ‘What are you afraid of? Is your family so frail that someone else’s marriage somewhere else can damage it? And if so, should you maybe put some energy into making your marriage stronger, rather than worry about other people’s?’

24/1/2005

Ontology and Epistemology

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:15 pm

In my current brainfried state, doing lots of teaching and with a pile of marking waiting for me, I’ll occasionally share something I did in class that was fun here – skip it if you find it too boring or too academic!

This is the text of a brief PowerPoint presentation on theories about reality that I used today. Feel free to challenge, critique, rip to shreds, extend, expand, whatever – it’s all grist for next year’s course, as well as just plain fun.

Ontology

  • Theory of reality
  • What is real?
  • Do we have direct access to reality?
  • Do we have mediated access?

Epistemology

  • Theory of knowledge
  • What is knowledge?
  • What do we know?
  • How do we know?
  • What can and can’t we know?

Realism

  • The idea that a real physical world exists
  • Connected with the notion of MIR1 – mind independent reality
  • Naïve realism states that we have simple, direct access to the universe, and that it persists when it is not perceived

Scientific Realism

  • The idea that we directly test our theories against reality, and that our scientific theories are becoming more and more true and complete

Critical Realism

  • The idea that some (many) of our sense-data do represent reality, but that there also exist illusions, mistakes, hallucinations and other sense-data that don’t reflect reality

Idealism

  • Plato’s notion of ‘ideal forms’ – the real world is a reflection of perfect, eternal ideal forms
  • Connected with the notion that physical reality is not directly accessible, but only in a mediated way

Materialism

  • The notion that all that exists is matter
  • For a materialist, we have direct access to the material reality of the world, using the material reality of our brains and senses

Instrumentalism

  • The idea that these debates are really not useful, or cannot be resolved
  • Agnosticism about reality
  • Instrumentalism suggests that our access to reality is ‘good enough for our purposes’, and that it doesn’t really matter whether our theories are true, so long as they work for our purposes

Implications for Science Education

  • We tend to default to scientific realism, but critical realism is a better adapted approach
  • Science can function perfectly within an instrumentalist view of the nature of science – that our theories are useful rather than true
  • This can help with issues of belief

Obviously there’s lots of discussion and explanation that goes along with these bare bones, but you’ll have to hit the net and find that stuff for yourselves! Wikipedia does a nice job, as always.

  1. Not the Russian space station. When I first joined a group of philosophers discussing ‘the existence of MIR’, I thought that was what they were talking about – and given some people’s skepticism about the moon landings, who knows, maybe the existence of the Russian space station is a valid topic for philosophical speculation…

22/1/2005

It’s Only Natural

Filed under: — Bravus @ 2:12 pm

Academics study the darndest things: this report includes careful discussion of why Michelangelo’s sculpture of ‘David’, while otherwise a perfect specimen of manhood, is perhaps a little, erm, underwhelming in the wedding tackle department. Turns out there’s a perfectly good reason, but you’ll have to read the report to find out what it is…

And, while we’re on the subject, Monty Python’s ‘Penis Song‘ (mp3) is hilarious – if you like that sort of thing.

A modicum of strange fame

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:28 am

I occasionally do the ‘vanity google’: put my name into Google and see where it’s spread across the web. My real name (David Geelan) is rare enough, and I spend enough time on the web in various ways, or publish or present at conferences in venues that end up on the web, that a lot of the hits that come up are actually about me. (Apparently there’s an amateur triathlete in Canberra, Australia who shares my name, though, and lots of records that have been produced by Tim Geelan had someone or other named David playing on them…)

I thought it was kinda cool to discover that one of my papers is cited in this style guide (pdf) from Washington State University for how to cite online publications in the MLA (Modern Language Association) style. Now I just want to know whether that also happens in the MLA’s two style guide books they publish… anyone who notices an MLA guide in their bookstore or library and can tell me, that’d be great…

Maybe it’s pathetic even to do the vanity google in the first place, and even more so to get excited about this, but I dunno, it’s just cool to see the name out there in the world, doing its own thing!

21/1/2005

Bashing Small Stuff Together Real Hard

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:35 pm

Some work being done by University of Alberta physicists (as part of a huge international team) at CERN in Switzerland: The Large Hadron Collider and a spinoff search for magnetic monopoles. Wikipedia has the scoop, as always. Although it’s called the ‘Large’ Hadron Collider, large is a relative term: it will mainly be used for protons, which have a mass of 1.67262158 x 10-27 kg.

20/1/2005

Joy or Fear?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:30 pm

I’m noticing it mainly with Christians, but that might just be because that’s who I’m talking to at the moment. I think it applies in the general population too: some people seem to be driven by fear, and others by joy (or fun, or love, or other positive emotions).

The ‘Spongebob is Gay‘ flap that’s currently arising is just one of the latest manifestations of fear: and it turns out that it’s all based on a misunderstanding, confusing this We Are Family with this one.

Those who are motivated by fear are often very angry, which is not so surprising: it’s not called the ‘fight or flight’ response for nothing. Those motivated by joy are much more likely to be happy within themselves, and to be sources of happiness in others…

It’s not just Christians, of course – the old buffer in the bar who thinks immigrants are gonna come and take all ‘our’ jobs is just as much being driven by fear. And politicians seem to be able to exploit fear more effectively than joy these days, so it’s in their interests to keep us scared.

I say we reject everything they stand for1, and find our joy!

1. The font and size used in this doc are horrible, so you may want to copy and paste it or something

18/1/2005

words of spell to be inteligent

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:46 pm

…apparently someone entered the above search string and was directed here by Google.

And someone else who entered “god made a few perfect people t shirts” also ended up here.

I wonder what those people think when they arrive? 😉

Juxtapositions

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:18 pm

Just heard a guy on the radio who was a paleontologist at the Tyrell Museum here in Alberta (Alberta has major dinosaur fossils). He was talking about some fossils – whole dinosaur skeletons – that were lost during the First World War. According to records from the time, two dinosaur skeletons had been aboard the SS Mount Temple when it was sunk by the German warship the Oldenberg (it had a number of names during its life, as that page shows).

The guy who was being interviewed (I didn’t catch his name but it may well have been Darren Tanke) had been shown an abandoned quarry in Alberta, and some rubbish and other stuff at that site convinced him that at least a third dinosaur had also been on the Mount Temple when it was sunk. But the interesting pieces of the story for me are that the Mount Temple – which was a ship on which many immigrants to Canada had come across – was the closest ship to the Titanic when it sank, and had rushed toward the incorrect coordinates the Titanic was broadcasting but been too slow to participate in the rescue. The Oldenburg had started life as a banana boat, been refitted as a warship at the start of the war, and been the most successful warship of the war, sinking over 50 ships.

Check out the story here: these juxtapositions are what make history come alive for me.

16/1/2005

Mandates

Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:02 pm

It happened in the Australian election last year, but even more so in the preceding Australian election a few years ago, and now it’s happening in the recent US election. Leaders who are elected then claim that they have received a ‘mandate’ to run their full policy agenda. In John Howard’s case, that meant continuing to put asylum seekers in concentration camps, continue deregulation and privatisation initiatives, eroding the rights of workers and generally running a corporatist, hard ‘economic rationalist’ policy line domestically along with a slavish attitude toward the alliance to the US and a certain level of xenophobia toward the region and the rest of the world. (OK, you might have guessed which way I voted… ;p)

But people didn’t vote on each of those issues, and where never given the opportunity. On balance, across the issues, enough voters preferred Howard to his opponents (Kim Beazley in the earlier election and Mark Latham in the most recent one) to give him sufficient seats to form government. But I’m quite sure that for many, what they were really thinking was something like “I agree with Howard on border security and education, but not on unfair dismissal laws”. But Howard went ahead and claimed that the election result gave him a mandate on every segment of his policy platform, as well as pretty much anything else that popped into his head.

It shouldn’t be that hard to fix that: at the time of the election, why not identify say 10 policy issues (education, health, trade, international policy, economic policy, taxation, etc)? The parties would know what issues would be on the ballot paper before the election, so it would be up to them to campaign strongly on the issues (rather than on fear and personalities) and make their positions clear. Voters would then place a vote for a candidate, but also choose between the positions of the parties (not just the Big Two, but maybe 4-5 – throw the Greens and the Australian Democrats in there too) on the various policy issues.

Even if those votes couldn’t be made binding on the winning party (and it’s hard to see politicians voting for them to be – and that’s what it would take with the system set up the way it is), at least they could be made public, so that the leader had a very clear sense of which policies had received mandates and which had not. Whaddaya reckon?

This ties in with some of the questions Lorne has been asking on Sirdar Inc about decision making processes and government, although his concern has been more with the judiciary than with elected politicians, I think.

What’s the frequency, Kenneth?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 4:48 pm

Something I’ve been thinking about a bit in relation to the activity of blogging itself, as well as to things like corporate and personal web sites: how frequently should the content be updated in order to keep readers coming back?

For a blog like this one, it’s really a matter of whether I have something to say or not on a particular day. While I’m delighted to have as many Constant Readers as I do, this is only partly driven by your need for something to read – the other part is my drive to write something.

At the same time, I do get antsy if a day or two goes by with no update – and maybe, occassionally, that means I push it and post something that’s more filler than killer. A one day gap on the calendar is OK, but 2 or more feels like a problem. At the other end of the spectrum, if it’s a particular mental ‘fertile period’, I start to feel a bit odd at about the third or so post for the day…

One way of balancing things out is the delayed post: Word Press allows me to tweak the posting date of any post as much as I like, so sometimes I’ll write one and set it up to appear the next day. I don’t do that often, but if you notice a post appearing at 4 am or so, that might be the reason.

Others take different approaches – only posting once a week or less. Maybe that works well for them and their readers, but it seems to me to be below some crucial threshold that makes it worthwhile for a reader to check in every day… and that seems like it might cause attrition over time. I guess one strategy would be to combine the delayed post approach (does Blogger do it?) with the idea of a regular weekly posting date, kind of like SomethingAwful.com‘s (crude humor alert) regular Tuesday Comedy Goldmine and Photoshop Phriday.

It’s not so crucial for personal blogs and humor pages, but what about a work-related discussion forum? I’m a member of a research group called the New Media Collaboration Studies Network, led by the Banff New Media Institute, and we have a discussion forum as part of that project (can’t show it to you, sorry, it’s password protected). It’s meant to help us inquire into collaborative work processes in art, business, science and education, but the forum suffers from two problems: (1) the frequency is too low to make it ‘sticky’ – there might only be a post every week or two, if that, so there’s no drive to check in daily and (2) we tend to get lost in the self-referential mirror maze – it’s a working discussion forum for discussion of the workings of working discussion forums.

15/1/2005

Sweatin’ The… Profit?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:49 pm

At the video section of Walmart today, spotted this one: Sweatin’ In The Spirit.

It’s basically a formula for making money: take a trend and make a whitebread ‘Christian’ version of it. Take the cheezy exercise video, and take out all that sinful bump and grind secular music, replace with CCM1 – itself the same sort of second order Christianized approximation of ‘real pop music’ – et voila, rake in the consecrated cash.

This article from The Revealer – ‘God is in the Retails‘ – discusses this issue, but ends up feeling fairly comfortable with the money changers in the temple.

I’m not so sure about the comfortable marriage of Christian churches with capitalism, although it seems as though lots of Christians are. The way I read it, Jesus was about serving everyone – but that included challenging those whose focus was on the cash. What do you think? Here’s a nice comment from Lenin2 in response to that Revealer article:

My problem with the “unholy” marriage of consumerism and Christianity is what this does to the way people approach, appreciate and valuate Christianity. Much more has been written about the effects of art being transformed into a commodity for mass entertainment consumption. Capitalism places a finite value on commodities to prepare them for the market. Certain things are beyond finite valuation, but they will be assigned one in order to market. Once this occurs people approach the commodity through this value. Whether they are conscious of it or not, the finite valuation of the commodity is soaked up by the spectator/participant/consumer in experience, it begins to form part of their “2nd nature.” The result is their devaluation and eventual loss of ability to thoroughly appreciate things which defy valuation.

  1. Christian Contemporary Music
  2. Probably not that one

14/1/2005

Digital Duct Tape

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:38 pm

So, now that I’ve got my main computer at home back, full of crunchy new Athlon 64 goodness (it runs so cool when gaming now it’s like a new computer) I’ve started playing Doom 3, which Suzie gave me for Christmas. Scary, gory, atmospheric and fun.

One of the annoyances gamers found with the game was that you could either hold your flashlight (‘torch’ for the Aussies) or your gun, but not both. With lots of dark corners, many with scary monsters in them, this was a pain in the proverbial, even if it was designed that way. So, in another example of the mutability of the digital, it was only a few days after the game was released that Glen Murphy created the ‘duct tape’ mod. What it does is simple: allow you to virtually duct tape your flashlight to your gun. Simple, elegant and effective.

And you know duct tape is like The Force, right?

12/1/2005

Computers = Voodoo

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:31 pm

              Bill Gates Voodoo

So my IBM Thinkpad A22m (getting old, but it has to hang on until I get a grant!) suddenly decided it wasn’t going to talk to the network in this building. Which was a hassle, because I wanted to use it in class to show some web stuff to my students. Called the network guy down, and he checked it out, and of course it worked perfectly. It worked for an hour or so after he left, then stopped again.

We e-mailed back and forth, and tried stuff, for a day and a bit, then I took it down to his office this morning and he did what I usually do in these situations: said ‘hmm, that’s really weird, why the heck is it doing that?’ My little lappie was calling out to the network, and the network was replying, but the lappie wasn’t hearing the replies. But if I plugged it in in my office it worked perfectly, plugged it in at home it worked fine, connected with wireless at home, no worries. Switched off the firewall (hmm, that reminds me, must switch it back on), tried a bunch of other stuff, no go.

We sent it up to the hardware guy, and it worked perfectly for him straight away, without him doing anything. He messed about and did things like defragging the hard drive, ‘cos that’s what he does, but he didn’t actually do anything to fix the problem – it just started working again, and so far it’s still working.

I swear, every computer maintenance person needs a cigar, a top hat and a bottle of rum. And, for emergencies, a black rooster…

Science Fair Continued

Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:45 am

Cassie currently has just over 350 total responses, from at least 28 countries. Here’s the current version of her map with the countries from which she has responses coloured:

World Map

And that URL again (please don’t be helpful by completing it more than once! But do pass it on): http://www.ualberta.ca/~dgeelan/misconceptions.html

11/1/2005

Who Knows?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:47 am

“Well, I’m sure I don’t know…” Dr Stephen Jonas, looking perplexed, was staring at the screen of the Cray quantum supercomputer running the first truly successful trial of his team’s Machine Intelligence1 program. The words continued blazing from the monitor, and echoing in the team’s ears from the computer’s speakers: the first question posed by the new entity contained within the RAM and processors and quantum tunneling circuitry on becoming conscious.

Based on experience with humans, they had expected that the first concern of MIke, the name given to the first Machine Intelligence, would be ‘Where am I?’ This was statistically by far the most common response of those returning from comas or other kinds of unconsciousness, closely followed by ‘Who am I?’ Teams of psychologists and psychiatrists and sociologists and counselors had developed reassuring responses to these two queries, and eight or so others, calculated to calm MIke and begin the process of teaching it – or, as they were already beginning to think and say, aided by the warm, well modulated and unmistakably male tones of the voice synthesizer, ‘him’ – to interact with the array of sensors attached to his inputs. These included microphones and touch arrays, scent analyzers and light sensors spanning well beyond the visible spectrum: in other words, like the senses available to a human, only better. He had also been connected to the electronic versions of the Encyclopedia Britannica, electronic archives of classic texts from a variety of traditions, the Library of Congress and every journal and newspaper that was available in electronic form.

But MIke’s first question stumped the team: “How do I know?” Their immediate response, of course, was “How do you know what?”, but MIke wasn’t looking for a particular single fact or piece of information – his question was bigger than that. As the team talked with him over the following days, it became clear that MIke’s question was about the nature of knowledge itself. The members of the team referred him to the history of philosophy from Socrates to Feyerabend, and particularly to the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge, epistemology. He read and re-read every text he could find (it took a matter of nanoseconds). There was plenty there about the nature of knowledge, and competing theories about what it means for humans to know, but this only led to MIke trimming another word from his incessant question, and changing it to “Do I know?”


Discussion Questions

  1. What is knowledge?
  2. Where can we find it? Where can’t we?
  3. How is it different from:
    1. Opinion?
    2. Belief?
    3. Information?
    4. Sense data?
  4. Who can know? Why and why not?
  5. How do we develop knowledge as babies? Where does our knowledge come from?
  6. Can we give knowledge to another person? To an animal? To a machine?

So: Does MIke know? And if so, how?

  1. The term ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (AI) had gone out of fashion after scientists and philosophers agreed that it was oxymoronic – if intelligence is intelligence (and there are hard questions about when it is), then clearly it’s real, not artificial, no matter whether it is driven by neurons and synapses or by transistors and magnetic memory.

10/1/2005

Survival

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:32 pm

So, I taught for pretty much 8 hours solid today. Was meant to be 9, but I gave my evening class (and myself) a break and let them go a little early, because it was the first day and we didn’t have any readings to talk about. We did do a little activity called ‘Who Knows?’ which was fun, and which I’ll post here tomorrow for your enjoyment.

So I taught the beginning teachers’ class from 9-12 and 1-4, which was a long day for them and a longer one for me – they were very patient and focused, but it was definitely a longish day. Fortunately there won’t be too many more like that – most of the afternoon activities involve guest speakers or them presenting. Chris from that class mentioned that he’d read my blog already, and more of those guys might drop in over the next few days – welcome, everyone.

Now I just need to prepare in detail for tomorrow, then I can sleep… 😉 I have kind of a ‘unit plan’ for the whole 5.5 weeks of the course, but each day or couple of days I have to flesh that out in detail with the actual content and activities for the next couple of days. And of course, we didn’t quite finish everything I hoped to get done today, so there’s some massaging to be done to fit some of that in tomorrow.

Science teaching is such a diverse and demanding activity that this course tends to jump from thing to thing a bit (and that’s exacerbated by my desire to keep it fresh), so there’s a certain extent to which I have to trust the students to just suspend judgement on the course for a little while and just go along – and it will all make sense in the end!