Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Saturday, February 08, 2014

I hope to start blogging again at Project Persephone. Until I have blogging scripts installed there, considering joining the Facebook group for that NPO.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Baby's Talking

Recently, to the surprise of both my Japanese family here and myself, I've started speaking in Japanese a lot. Perhaps that's somewhat of a surprise to readers here as well. You've seen me write about the travails of technical translation. How is it possible, you must be wondering, that I can read complex engineering documents in Japanese but haven't really been able to speak the language? I've encountered this kind of bemusement among Japanese who have found out that I can translate Japanese patents that thoroughly baffle them, but am otherwise laughably inarticulate in Japanese. Well, how I became literate (selectively, narrowly) is a story for another time. The conundrum du jour is: why am I suddenly blabbing away now in Japanese, almost 12 years after I came to Japan to live?

I was puzzled over this question myself, even as I blithely entered into long conversations with strangers, and spoke to members of my family at lengths that surprised them, over the past few weeks. I had time to think about this question while hiking Takao-zan yesterday -- though not as much time as those hikes used to give me for mulling and theorizing. As it turned out, I spent half my ascent breathlessly chatting with a Japanese mountaineer who (I suppose) took an interest in me because I was the only person in his age range who could keep up with him on the trail. (And that wasn't the only extended conversation with a stranger yesterday. I fell into two more before I got home.)

One answer that occurred to me: I'm speaking Japanese out of sheer force of necessity. A brother-in-law who had been shepherding the finances of my extended family and its businesses died about a month ago, and the heir to those responsibilities has not been apparent. Things were left a bit of a mess, financially. Who is qualified to take up family money issues and straighten them out, with or without the help of a professional? This man's bereaved widow? No. Not right now, anyway. How about my wife? No. She is very literate, far more so than most Japanese, but she once called me up at work years ago to ask me what 6 times 7 is, because she couldn't find her calculator. Being literate and pleasantly fluent might have to take a back seat to being numerate, and these people are not very numerate. It looks like I've got to take up the money problems, and that's going to require speaking Japanese.

Force of necessity might be only part of the explanation, however, the spark on the kindling. The problem with necessity as a full explanation is that there have been more than a few sparks of crisis in the past decade or so, with no blaze resulting. If anything, the failure of those events to bring me out of the shell only dampened any ambition to speak Japanese fluently, an ambition that seemed unrealistic anyway given that I'm no longer young. I didn't start serious study of Japanese until I was 40. This year I turned 51. What could my future chances possibly be?

Well, here's an odd theory: it took me a long time to gain some fluency in Japanese because it takes me a long time to gain fluency in any language, with my native language being an excellent case in point. I could hardly stutter out my name when asked, at age 9. I was still very tongue-tied at age 12. I was reading like crazy, of course, but I was not a terribly good listener -- my thoughts tended to drift while being spoken to at any length. (Early warning sign on a first grade report card: "Does not always follow instructions.") In puberty, however, something began to click. I became outspoken in class (even though the prospect initially made my heart poiund), I learned to distract teachers with questions that interested them and I got them talking -- to me, and only to me, even with 30 other students in the class. In fact, I often got so much credit for "classroom participation" that my incredible laziness about doing homework was usually given a pass. By age 25, I'd go to parties in Berkeley, gab a mile a minute with any interesting person I could find, and was often handed a conversational plum at the end: "So ... where did you get your PhD?" (Dirty little secret about me: I never even got a bachelor's degree. A long story, don't ask.) A creative writing teacher at College of Marin once said to me, "You're 20, you look 17, but you talk like a 35-year-old man."

I'm a developmental oddity, that's all. Some part of my brain with whom I'm not on speaking terms (whose existence I didn't even suspect) seems to want circle all around a new language, keeping a watchful distance, then, after ten years, suddenly clobber the problem of speaking it.

So now that it seems I can speak Japanese, with whom should I speak it? Not just with tax accountants and my family. I sure hope not, anyway. That could get seriously dull. In my intensive Japanese school here, we were told, "If you want to learn to speak Japanese, you must make Japanese friends." I despaired of being able to do this (in Japanese anyway), partly blaming myself for starting to learn Japanese too late, partly blaming the culture for being so stand-offish. There may be a grain of truth to these excuses, but now I believe they are mainly just excuses. If I have a challenge now in the language, I don't think it's making friends. That just seems to be happening all by itself, if anything it's happening too fast to be sustainably manageable. Rather, I have to start improving my conversational Japanese fast enough to keep new friends. I know from experience here with trying to be friends with Japanese people speaking English that a person who seems initially interesting can become massively irritating if they keep making the same basic conversational mistakes over and over. I don't want to be like that, in any language.

Well, that's it. Baby's talking. (Baby's yelling, too -- the sparks of crisis have been sending sparks ricocheting off me. I've been spraying my own sparks, too. Now I often have to put out fires started by my anger, in Japanese, as best I can.) Baby's talking, yelling, burning. Baby's having to grow up fast, too. Taking on more responsibility can be like a second puberty, I suppose. Watch this space.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Personals ad: You, in burkha. Me, panting. Let's meet!

Over at Rationally Speaking, they are arguing (in comments on "Between the Scylla of moral absolutism and the Charybdis of moral relativism") about what makes a culture "superior". Dr. Pigliucci's most recent clarification of his metric:
"...the "scale" proposed here is the same that Aristotle had in mind: whatever furthers human flourishing."

Somehow, though, "flourishing" doesn't put us any closer to an answer than "superior". How do you measure "flourish"?

You might find a woman in Saudi Arabia (even one with a PhD?) saying that the burkha promoted "human flourishing" by suppressing the more trivial aspects of being female -- that a society that permits women to be ranked in public by their looks simply devalues women, by forcing them to compete for attention on superficial aspects entirely independent of their worth as individuals. (I should emphasize "public". I once read an account from a westerner invited into the home of a muslim in India. The way his host's wife dressed at home, at least for guests, left him sorely tempted to convert to Islam.) In short: let's hypothesize that public suppression of women's sexuality results in more power for women, all other things being equal.

"Sure," you might reply. "And maybe we'll find an old diary entry of Andrea Dworkin's, conveying some such sentiment, penned at 4am after waking up dyspeptic from eating too much anchovy-pepperoni pizza."

Still, it's not an entirely whacky view even from the point of view of some normal western women. I read an article recently from a woman (an academic, IIRC) who toured some Arab countries, and adopted various modes of coverup as the social situations demanded. When she returned to her native country (Britain IIRC), she was re-exposed to consensus demands about women's appearance that suddenly seemed very uncomfortable.

Now, this isn't to say that one should favor laws requiring women to cover themselves Saudi-style. Still, I look at the French reaction to headscarves on girls in schools, and vaguely recollect a recent proposed law (?) in Britain banning the burkha, and am forced to wonder whether we should adopt any such prohibitionistic approach to whatever problems these dress styles supposedly represent to a secular, liberal, democratic, humanist society.

An anecdote, if you will. Maybe you can make something of it.

My first experience of seeing a woman in the flesh wearing a burkha or anything like it occurred in Berkeley, California, where you'll more likely run into people wearing absolutely nothing. The garb didn't reach all the way down -- she was wearing pants, and I could see that. But from mid-thigh upward, all I could see was her eyes and the skin on her hands. I spotted her half a block away. What to do? Duck into a store? Cross the street? It was distinctly creepy.

"Well," I remember thinking, "Lemme just be cool about this. Yeah, it's weird, but my hometown is weird, that's practically its raison d'etre. She's probably doing this for a term paper in Post-Colonial Comparative Gender Studies or something." So I made only the briefest eye contact with her, from perhaps 10 paces away, then feigned a relaxed stroll, staring off into the middle distance as we passed each other on the sidewalk.

And as we passed each other, she turned to me for just a split second and said, "Hello." Without breaking stride.

And I remember continuing down the street in a slight daze, thinking, "Wow. That was really sexy."

Now: what made it sexy? Whatever your answer -- unless your answer is "Michael Turner clearly needs some professional help" -- I think it goes hand-in-hand with the answer to the question, Why is public nudity (as opposed to glossy pictorials with professional lighting) so NOT sexy?

We tend to think of these dress styles as necessarily sexist. But perhaps that view is simply too (dys-)informed by xenophobia? What makes us prefer to believe that such customs prevail only though reinforcement by women motivated only out of blind allegiance to ideologies of male domination, or simple fear of male retribution (a likely strong component, I'll admit). What about a general recognition that covering up feels like "the great equalizer" of otherwise rather large individual differences in sexual power among women? What if it does favor equality of sexual power for women, and moreover, greater sexual power for women? (In the aggregate, mind you, and on average, if not for the exceptional hot babe, sweating underneath all that cloth.) Might we not consider that more egalitarian, more liberating in some sense, and more likely to promote this Aristotelian ideal of "human flourishing"?

No. Of course not. How stupid of me to even suggest such a thing. I don't know what came over me. Sorry. I'll leave you all alone now. Whatever you do, don't think about this. Especially, don't think about websites full of GIFs of women's eyes, framed in black cloth, staring out at you. With delicate eye-shadow and lush lashes. And audio icons that, when clicked, purr soft and friendly greetings. (Websites which I am NOT now googling desperately for, than you for asking.)

Monday, May 07, 2007

Presidential tag clouds: parsing the word salad

You have to pan the stream of blogging about blogging with an eye peeled for the real nuggets -- most of what glitters in the silt turns out to be fool's gold. Marc Cooper blogs about blogging rarely, but does it exceptionally well. In a recent entry, he turned up, immediately hooking me. I was most drawn to its discussion of tag cloud analysis on the speeches of presidential candidates. Brute-force broad-brush text analysis holds little technological fascination for me, since it's as much a source of unintended comedy as illumination. I say: do text analysis either with simple tools, or -- until the day when true Natural Language Understanding arrives -- not at all. Tag clouds (and text clouds) may fit the bill.

In the tag clouds found for Dem candidates at, Obama has the highest total wordcount for statistical purposes, and one of the least issue-specific clouds. Cf. Biden, all over the map on sometimes-obscure issues. Floating around in Obama's mix, you struggle for specificity -- hardly a “frame” in sight. Does “around” connote some political charge these days? Am I missing the dog-whistle note in “going”? Can we be sure that when he says “sure” (as he apparently does quite often) he’s really sure? He uses the word “families” quite frequently, as Bill Clinton did, and as Dubya did until 9/11. (Guess what the big word is *after* 9/11. Hint: it starts with a “t”.) Apart from that -- an apparent nullity from a not-insubstantial speaker. What gives?

Yes, Obama says real things. Obama wonks a lot, a whole lot, but on a lot of different topics, thus cancelling out any particular topic in his tag clouds. Of course, if you go his site, you can see videos of him winning the popularity contest handily. These clips won’t strain your powers of attention, and will only vaguely direct you to one issue focus or another. But you can also find long speeches in which topics like putting the world’s nuclear enrichment programs under an umbrella organization is just one of three parts. He can talk for 20 minutes about nuclear terrorism prevention, seriously wonky stuff, rather than about going mano-a-mano with terrorists, the stuff of sound bites. "Uranium" won’t pop out in his tag clouds because he goes at the problem from an “ounce of prevention” angle, while talking about a lot of other ounces, all over the political map.

In a way almost blatantly at odds with his ostensible strategy of direct popular conversation, Obama’s real audience for all this verbiage looks like the specialized political classes — evangelical leaders on the Dem side of the spectrum, high-level federal bureaucrats, business leaders, opinion-makers on specific policy issues. In these speeches, he greets initial applause with a slightly dour machine-gun spray of “thank you, thank you, thank you”, and almost winces when scattered clapping erupts in mid-sentence. The message in that, clearly: “Shut the fuck up, because what I’m going to say here is about stuff that matters to YOU, the serious student of policy, regardless of how you feel about ME. I’ve got a lot of material to cover. So don’t waste my time.” He subdues his audience every time: Yes, Professor Obama: we're listening. He gives these special audiences a heads-up on what an Obama presidency is going to mean to them in career terms.

Under the apparent vagueness suggested by Obama's tag cloud, you can see what I regard as truly brilliant strategy: for now, let the other candidates hammer away on getting the votes that he can get almost effortlessly with a smile and a wave, with his faintly Lincolnesque persona in formal speeches to open crowds, with his faintly (Bill) Clintonesque persona in the more informal settings. For now -- it's still early -- he concentrates on building up expectations among the people whose work he'll directly affect, day-to-day, if he reaches the Oval Office. The audience is not even particularly partisan. These two terms of Dubya will leave quite a few GOP political appointees in office after 2008, and they will greatly appreciate knowing where Obama is coming from, in various policy arenas.

Cf. Hillary. Hillary has gotten really big on saying “president”. President, president, president — she just loves to say “president”. She doesn’t need to provide detailed career-navigation clues to the political classes, because they already know that her administration will be Billary: The Sequel. The likely collocations: "This president" (note the subtle hiss), and "As president" (softly pointing "Me, me, me: the first woman president. Start believing now, so that by the time you get to the polls, you'll feel like you're re-electing me.")

Edwards is #2 in the upstart-popularity sweepstakes with Obama. When you're #2, you try harder. For him, for now, it's all about votes from the gut, and he knows it. He even has helpful Lakovian Framing happening by accident in his tag cloud, in alphabetical order, stuff you’d have to pay cubic dollars to political consultants to figure out, after they got that nattering George Lakoff guy out of the room:

America - believe
health - important
president - question
states - united

Of course, those happy accidents are almost certainly helped along by cubic money paid to political consultants.

For you history buffs out there, Chirag Mehta's US Presidential Speeches Tag Cloud page is great fun. The biggest word in the presidential terms leading up to the Civil War? “Constitution”. If that one starts popping out again in future presidential-speech tag clouds, you might consider gradually liquidating your assets and moving the cash to off-shore accounts.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Debunking the value of debunking?

Entirely by accident (well, sort of), I recently joined the Tokyo chapter of The Brights. Possibly in response to what might be called my "friendly collision" with this group, its organizer just sent a message about a change of group emphasis. The gist was: was "less debunking, more fun".

It somehow reminded me of an International Herald Tribune Teaching the Controversy". Adding to the brew, in private e-mail to me, the Tokyo Brights organizer pointed out the Tony Kehoe being the person to talk to if you're interested.) Both gave me yet more food for thought.

Debunking might not be such a useful activity for Brights and Skeptics and their ilk. Not to imply that arguments against a silly proposition are simply wrong, of course. Or even that those who wield those arguments are wrong. Rather, debunking for fun (and for the pros, profit) seems to me a case of too little, too late. If we don't treat the source of silly ideas at the root, silly ideas will continue to flower. Hack at the roots? Many mentalities root themselves in the wrong soil, so perhaps even roots don't make for such good targets. Transplantation? Probably a non-starter: Earth has a whole lot of this "soil", and there's no nicely furnished other planet to move to. We should perhaps think "strategic deployment of micro-nutrients" here, if only because of the scale of the problem. And what better "micro-nutrient" than good schooling, early and often, in critical thinking?

Read the above Michael Balter op-ed before you try to absorb the next item here: in public junior high school and high school, I hated science classes almost as much as I hated Catholic school religion classes in primary school. Perhaps things have changed, but at least one evidently intelligent high school student weighs in suggesting otherwise. Make no mistake, I fancy myself a scientific rationalist, and thought so even when young. Nevertheless, after the transition from parochial to public schools, I saw something about the way science was taught that irritated me. We were told some facts, certain ways of computing things, and given some experiments to do. We were treated to a few sidebar glances at great scientists in our textbooks. Basically, though, the treatment seem to consist of, simply, WE Tell YOU How It IS. I'd gotten enough of that in Catholic school to develop an allergy to it in any form.

Think about the real and potential value of teaching science to young people at all. Why do it? Reductively, one might defend the practice by saying that science yields technology which improves quality of life. So even if you start with tens of millions of junior high school kids forced to take science courses (and many, if not most, hating it), and get only a relative handful of productive scientists out the far end of the process (after high school, bachelor's degree programs, graduate programs and post-docs), the investment tends to pay dividends.

But look at that ratio -- tens of millions of students not-so-willingly science-educated, and perhaps only a few thousand top scientists produced in the end. What a vast expense of resources for such a small yield! And perhaps a vaste waste, too.

In one study I read years ago, about what makes for a productive scientist, it was found that about 1/3rd of all scientists deemed most productive by their peers had originally entered a small liberal arts college with no particular ambition of becoming a scientist. Small liberal arts colleges can't represent more than perhaps 3% of the total student body in college education, and yet they apparently outproduce other colleges by a factor of ten, starting with what seems like unlikely material in an unlikely context. It seems the most economical system for producing the scientists would concentrate almost evangelistic science teaching resources on the rare post-secondary student who embodies a nice balance of open-mindedness and critical thinking, and also happens to be possessed of an above-average esthetic sense.

One could argue that what scientists produce, and the technological value those results often have, forms only a small (though undeniably significant) part of the economic story. Pre-college science courses help cultivate the cadres of technologists, and even of "paratechnologists", from nurses to electronics technicians, required to deliver the products and services that science and the resulting technologies make possible. Again, I wonder if the economic argument fails. The best job training takes place ON the job. Secondary education inevitably lags the state of the art in any field.

Let's call in the reinforcements, move to the high ground: what about knowledge for its own sake? Of course knowledge has its own rewards. But you'll seldom find anyone more boring than the the guy (and isn't almost always a guy?) who seems to know everything, yet somehow disgorges that knowledge without much understanding of why things are the way they are. Chocking people's brains with facts isn't really very productive or valuable in itself.

Still, that last suggests convergence on a possible answer: perhaps science teaching should concern itself with Stories of the Pleasure (OK, maybe the agony, too) of Finding Things Out, imparting thinking skills that you can apply to almost any question in life. (While studying the lives of great physicists, I was amused to discover that memorizing formulae was far less prized as a skill than being able to rapidly re-derive formulae.) Newton approached the problem of gravity by Finding Out, incidentally co-inventing calculus (though the underpinnings of his math stretch back to the ancient Greeks.) We don't celebrate what he "knew" about theology and alchemy, those grab-bags of "facts" with little basis in reality and little coherent theory from which to derive anything new. We celebrate what he figured out.

More concretely, I suggest studying science as history, along with history. Teach it as the history of some conversations, with ever-better ways to argue about the natural world emerging slowly, not just as a series of "debunking" experiments. Teach biographies of great minds who still had their faults and foibles and fixed ideas, as we all do. But avoid hagiography - rather, focus on how few of them were lone wolves, on the value of a scientific community, even with all its squabbles and jagged personalities. Don't give the human sciences short shrift in this, but perhaps even emphasize them -- after all, if we want teaching the scientific way of thinking to almost everyone has any possible meaning for almost everyone, it should be in making people better participants in democracies. And that amounts to making them better thinkers about how people behave. All the hard-science reasoning skills in the world won't help you in the world unless you can transfer those reasoning skills to other, more humanistic, domains.

In this view of the matter, Teach the Controversy looks like precisely the right approach, even if the results are likely to backfire on its original ID organizers. (Perhaps, if the study Balter points to turns out to be indicative, ID will be force to repackage and "rebrand"?) Students should not absorb the theory of evolution as a regurgitable dogma, but as the result of many good -- even great -- minds (all initially Creationist) being changed not just by Darwin's individual process of trying to discern the truth of the origin of species, but also by Darwin's social process of putting that truth across convincingly to his peers.

In the controversy we've seen so far about Creationism, Evolution and ID, much has been made of the point that evolution can be a fact even if it's not a complete theory (which it isn't, even now), and that there's nothing wrong with students being told that it's not complete. Let's extend that to how we teach the human sciences. It's in the nature of reasoning about very complex phenomena that completion often remains elusive. Among the complex phenomena students could be taught to reason about (through the examples of successes and failures of reasoning in history) is political processes, especially if they are understood through what's now known in sociology, psychology, anthropology, economics and even the branch of linguistiscs called "sociolinguistics."

So how does all this tie into my subject line? To repeat, debunking is usually too little, too late. The weeds are already too deep and thick by the time debunking seems called for, and you'll never find a weedwhacker for neurons. Inculcating a cultural pattern that favors reason has been, to steal from Richard Dawkins' title, a process of Climbing Mount Improbable, and the rigors of the routes still leave too few clustered at the peaks. Perhaps, as Daniel Dennett claims, Freedom Evolves. However, if history teaches us anything, it teaches us that dramatic reversals happen; better to guard against them proactively. Chance favors the prepared mind, but we see too few prepared minds -- or rather, too many minds prepared to accept various chance, silly ideas without question. To what extent does accepting ideas without much question -- whether simply because they are novel, or simply because they are established -- still primarily stem from how our educational system prepares young minds, no matter how true (in some narrow, purely factual, sense) its teachings may be?

Teaching science -- all sciences, including the human sciences -- as flexible processes of questioning and narrowing down possibilities, rather than as fixed systems of answer-generators, should help everyone meet the challenges of citizenship in a democracy better prepared. Good democracies depend on good citizens, and good government makes life better for almost everyone. Nobody loses, really. Debunking doesn't really reach far enough, soon enough, to have much to offer in reaching this desirable outcome. At best, it's reactive, it provides ammunition for rear-guard defense. But a defensive posture alone seldom suffices to survive and thrive. Providing educational resources for a few ardent defenders won't get us very far up this particular peak of Mount Improbable.

Any realistic solution may require a change (even if only a subtle change) in the very nature of institutionalized education. To shift the metaphor from "soil micro-nutrients" to something more like "genetic engineering of soil bacteria", one can see a kind of meme-design challenge : how to implant self-propagating thoughts about education that favor a culture of critical discourse, even for the average citizen. If teaching science as the history of fallible human beings, seeking truth in fallible (but ever-better) ways, is a key strategy, perhaps an EQ ("Emotional Intelligence") strategic element must trump pure IQ tactics: it's very much about how you leave your opponent feeling, and less about wether you "won -- on points." That's something we might learn from Darwin himself.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Space: The Final Window of Opportunity?

Bad meme. Bad, bad meme. We have only a few more decades. Then Earth becomes a stinking, overpopulated, overpolluted hell-hole from which humanity cannot escape, within which humanity may even extinguish itself. The narrative is usually softened with vaulting rhetoric about how the vast resources of space will save Earth.

The Window of Opportunity meme, though perhaps most strongly associated with Jerry Pournelle, traces goes back to Heinlein at least, and probably much earlier. Lots of SF has been predicated on global Malthusian crises; mix space access into that, and the hybrid scenario may sound apocalyptically compelling. However, it hardly comes across as a brilliant invention as memes go. quotes Pournelle:
This generation is crucial; we have the resources to get mankind off this planet. If we don't do it, we may soon be facing a world of 15 billion people and more, a world in which it's all we can do to stay alive; a world without the resources to go into space and get rich... I don't think it will come to that because the vision of the future is so clear to me. We need realize only one thing: we do not inhabit 'Only One Earth.' Mankind doesn't live on Earth. Man lives in a solar system... Given [a] basic space civilization ... we'll have accomplished one goal: no single accident, no war, no one insane action will finish us off." [from A Step Farther Out, 1979]

At, you will also find Rick Tumlinson construing "sustainable growth" as an oxymoron, where I understand the term to mean "economic growth that catches up to and paces population growth, under the assumption that populations will stabilize." And they probably will. More than a generation has passed since Pournelle declared the Last Chance Generation, and one of the big economic questions of our time, ironically, is "Will China get rich before it gets old?" I.e., will it hit population shrinkage, as we did here in Japan, at a high enough developmental plateau? At its current growth rates, one can safely answer: yes.

Japan offers some interesting earlier precedents for sustainability. Japan appeared to hit a resource-constrained plateau in the Tokugawa period [Jared Diamond's Collapse, for details], and responded intelligently and sustainably:
"The first national census, conducted around 1720, indicates a population of approximately 30 million people, which remained relatively constant throughout the entire two and a half centuries of the EdoPeriod." [See

Were those Japanese all living hand-to-mouth in subsistence farming? No. In the year 1800 Japan enjoyed the status of most urbanized nation in the world. And they achieved this level of social surplus largely without the benefit of technological advances from the West -- advances which, by way of Dutch traders at Dejima, they knew of, but generally didn't adopt out of concerns for destabilizing effects and unsustainable resource consumption. I wouldn't want to live under feudalism, but I doubt the necessity anyway.

So maybe all this blather about how it's inevitable that the Earth will become a stinking hell hole is just that: blather. If the population of Japan, stretched out over an archipelago and speaking many mutually unintelligible dialects, with a long history of bitter internal conflict, could persevere, could overcome resource crunches and reach a higher level of civilization than much of Europe at the time, why not all of Earth in our time?

You can see a lot of manifest-destiny propheteering at Oddly, the only quote that touched me at all now (where in my youth I'd have been thrilled by most of them) came from Konrad Lorenz:
"I am convinced that of all the people on the two sides of the great curtain, the space pilots are the least likely to hate each other. Like the late Erich von Holst, I believe that the tremendous and otherwise not quite explicable public interest in space flight arises from the subconscious realization that it helps to preserve peace. May it continue to do so!" [On Aggression, 1963]

Perhaps one could hear some echo of Lorenz from a speaker from one of the Big Bad Bloated Aerospace companies at ISDC '06. He commented on the value of Russians and Americans working together on ISS, and said something like "real love comes not when you're looking at each other, but when you're looking together toward a shared goal." A Hallmark Moment? Perhaps. However, he seemed to offer this sentiment in all sincerity, and I must admit that some of my antipathy toward the whole undeniably-flawed endeavor melted a little just then.

Pournelle seems to come from Heinlein -- that we achieve the most profound and thrilling human unity only when faced with a common enemy. War as a unifier exacts unsustainable costs, however, and only for a unity too artificial to survive long except through perpetual renewal of hostility. In war, even people who hate each other passionately will work hand-in-hand.

Oddly, perhaps we find can greater spiritual achievement in solving a hard (even somewhat arbitrary) problem together. Or perhaps I am very little like most people in this respect. Team sports held little appeal for me, in my youth and even now, though I have great respect for athletes; my parents both taught figure skating. Back in the 80s, I had roommates who were slightly aghast to see me pleased that Katerina Witt (from darkest East Germany) won the women's gold in figure skating at the Olympics, with the favored American taking only bronze. But I merely wanted what I thought best for skating, not for America's image of itself. And fair judging of innovative skating could only improve skating. Does it matter? Do the lessons travel? What does that figure skting do but collect together some rather silly and somewhat arbitrary athletic and esthetic problems, when you look at it coldly? Never mind: people love how those problems get solved, and the better skating gets, the more they love it. Sure, it's all still framed within competition, just a slightly unfortunate means to a good end, in my view. Perhaps attitudes towards space development could benefit more by seeing it as sport and art, with the emphasis on art, rather than as dominance display, or as species escape hatch for the lucky few, who, having escaped, might or might not be motivated to save the rest of us.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Uberman On-Ramp Day ... uh ....

What happened? Good question. I don't quite understand it myself.

The end of a long stretch of smooth sailing at the ryokan, with a large party leaving after 9 days, forcing errands and interruptions as we went into guest turn-over tasks, certainly contributed to losing momentum. Lesson: when you see turbulence coming up, brace yourself.

Outages on my PC and finally some kind of service changeover at soured me on blogging for a while. Lesson: learn to handle frustration better.

A sharp reduction in caffeine withdrawal symptoms, and taking up swimming and meditation, seemed to release a torrent of energy, one that got blown on renewal of bad habits -- arguing on mailing lists (a very bad, very old habit) not least among them. Worse: I stopped swimming and mediating, even drank a full-caf cappucino on one day, with new withdrawal symptoms the next day. Lesson: the coming of good things can have unintended negative consequences. You won't become a better person overnight. Two steps forward, one step back. Smaller, tentative steps work better.

And these bad habits interfered with continuing adopted habits, and with the adoption of new habits. Lesson: guard areas of progress like a hawk, don't add too many life innovations at once.

Finally, all this happened during a rough spot on my Not-So-Secret Software Project. (Specifically, trying to bolt bakari ["just", "only", "approximately/about"] into the grammar of the Japanese parser. As with English "just/only", where you can have "Only John is going to the party," "John is only going to the party", and they mean two different things, bakari forms very freely, requiring augmenting a lot of grammar rules.) My response was to stop working on this project, even though at any given time, plenty of tasks sit on my project to-do list, most of them easy. Today I made progress, by simply noting that many of the test examples for bakari already involved forward references to grammar that I hadn't coded yet; and decided to put the examples and related vocabulary in the regression-testing database, solve the easier problems, and defer the harder ones. Lesson: be gentle on yourself as you're going through an adjustment, keep going where you can.