Getting that thinking feeling

by ammophila

Significant changes to this journal have been decided.  Details to appear as a separate short posting tomorrow  Main items today: Flawed thought; Use of intercepts; Old Kalgovia  Readers are assured that, apart from this sentence, all items are Trump-free.


Technology news  Latest must-have gadget: a miniature loudspeaker about the size of a bergamot, to be fitted to a cat’s collar and either relay the sounds sent by wi-fi from whoever has the controls or play pre-recorded sounds.  The range of options is impressive.  Pre-recorded signals include the sound of a tiger’s roar at up to 90 db at 10 feet, while by using the other option you can scare the wits out of your neighbours by transmitting threatening remarks in disguised voices or letting them hear what sounds like immigrants discussing a plot to steal the crown jewels


‘Competition is a good thing’ : one of the hardest working clichés in the capitalist’s vocabulary, but a falsehood.    Competition allied with honourable behaviour by the participants and conducted on a fair playing field is, or would be, a good thing (but this has about the same relevance to real life as saying  it would be a good thing if every member of the species solemnly and sincerely promised never to use a weapon to kill another human being).   In real life, the word ‘competition’ covers cronyism, fraud, bribery, and callous indifference to all who don’t have the capacity to compete.  As a slogan it is uttered as slogans usually are, to imply that dissent is either downright impossible or is the betrayal through malice or stupidity of a principle which should be upheld by all; like a tribal chant of a primitive tribe that relies on obedience to its leaders as a substitute for intelligent thought.


A longtime friend of this journal, hearing the posting arrangement is going to change gear, has sent in this piece.  (He wishes to remain anonymous.)

Back in July Berthold contributed an article to your journal about what he called the ‘nebula’ which becomes attached to public figures.  I hope he won’t take it amiss if I say that his remarks were not wholly free from nebulosity themselves.  I wonder why he didn’t use the word reputation as I shall.  But I’d certainly agree with him that reputations can be gained on flimsy and irrelevant grounds, and once won are liable to stick even when if won accidentally.  This is not a mere curiosity of social behaviour as I shall show, but first let me give a couple of examples.  A paradigm case is Frederick the Great, regarded in his own time and for centuries after as one of the great military leaders of early modern history.  Yet in truth his armies won their first battles under his leadership very largely because he commanded an army ruthlessly trained to incomparable obedience by his brutal father, Frederick I, and partly through his inexperience, so that he caught opposing generals by surprise, moving his troops in defiance of conventional battle-plans.  Then after those early victories won him a reputation that itself became a factor.  In quite different eras and quite different spheres we can still find the same curious persistence of unjustified reputations.  ‘Truth will’ not always ‘out’; or at least some fragments of truth may have to wait longer than the lifetime of a civilisation before being revealed: Virgil acquired a reputation as a major poet by (i) writing copiously; (ii) using that material,and other opportunities, to fawn on an autocratic emperor who expressed imperial approval; (iii) an eye for the sort of material that well-off and well-connected Romans found agreeable; (iv) a good verbal memory and a good grounding in the rules for writing Latin hexameters (though not always faultlessly); and (v) quite remarkably little talent for imagination, visual description, or using language for interesting and impressive effects (other than pomposity), or any other qualities that might raise an honest claim for a true poet.  Those examples fairly demonstrate that the masses (even educated masses) will readily accept an off-the-shelf, ready-to-repeat assessment based on a nebulous reputation rather than carefully examining actual observable evidence.  As it happens I once heard a distinguished professor of English, lecturing in one of the three great universities of western Europe, praise an English poet for his sensitive use of the distinctive resonance of the sequence wr- at the beginning of a word, by contrast with initial r-.  (His specific focus was on the word ‘wring’).  That distinctive resonance is, putting it crudely, baloney.  It does not exist.  Regrettably, I can add that the professor’s surname was Wren.  Much more broadly it is regrettable that willingness to accept hand-me-down ’facts’ based on a quick impression is stronger than ever today, and there are worrying reasons for that.  Sometimes one encounters an inexplicit assumption (partly based on generous confusion between such terms as education, school attendance, knowledge, and intelligence) that people are ‘cleverer today’ than in earlier times.  There is good reason for thinking that change is in exactly the wrong direction.  The ever increasing numbers in the world, and ever greater frequency of interactions, multiplied many times by electronic media, drastically reduce the timespan that individuals allocate to any mental activity.  Several types of mental blunder are the direct result, and through their sheer frequency are first tolerated, and ultimately pass unnoticed.  Sometimes it may not matter.  Sometimes it leaves understanding seriously damaged, as when all members of a group are taken to have the same characteristics.  (Consider the false beliefs about immigrants firmly held by large numbers in both Britain and France.)  A similar flaw can appear on the time axis.  “University education is valuable training for the mind” is now much less true than it once was.  And claims based on what ‘everybody knows’ need to be examined with some imagination for what could be considered but has not been.  Thus, dinosaur extinction is on the media menu again with a partly new version of planetary winter.  (Admittedly, these recent reports may be as garbled as most journalistic accounts of scientific advance; if so, sincere apologies to all those misrepresented.)  However, this version as reported could perhaps explain why many species died out, but glides effortlessly past a cavernous gap in the exposition. An explanation that covers the facts you first think of but ignores the existence of other data which do not fit in conveniently is a poor explanation.  Why did the dinosaurs die out but not the mammals nor the birds (nor, unfortunately, the mosquitoes)?  Not so much a gorilla brooding in a corner of the room; more a great hole where the corner of the room and its floor and walls ought to be.  Relying on reputation, the ready-made opinion of others, saves time and mental effort, but thereby undermines the hope of reliable reasoning and should be avoided and condemned.


(Accepting that 99% of sightings of ufos result from misidentifcations, hoaxes, publicity stunts, and alcohol consumption) it is reasonable to suppose that most of the others are driverless spatial vehicles  since no sane alien commander would risk a crewed vehicle anywhere near this planet.  That of course amounts to saying that they are aliens’ drones, and at that point let us pause and try to run through the full range of uses to which humans put and hope to put drones

It was Fermi, wasn’t it, who asked back in the 1950s why, if the galaxy has millions of planets that could support life, we don’t meet any aliens  One possible answer could be that the aliens have already placed this planet in preventive isolation.  (Now I think about it, seems highly likely.)


The NSA may not yet have realised it but they are in a position to make one of the greatest advances in political history.  Also perhaps in literature.  They have now far the largest collection of English verbiage ever accumulated, or that ever will be accumulated by anybody else trying with the same approach since they will now be on the wrong side of the counterflow threshold. (This is a technical term referring to very large data collections where incoming data has to be correlated on more than one parameter with data already stored, but with the result of the internal processing potentially leading to a correction of the IID (initial input data), which will then require a further correlation.  Beyond a certain limit on data input rate this is bound to cause internal processing time to exceed the capacity to receive incoming data by an ever increasing margin, until the whole thing breaks down, like most major enterprises constructed by or for, or by and for, the behemoths of bureaucracy which are impartially squeezing the life out of so many human activities. Bureaucratic procedures substitute rule-following and box-ticking for the use of human intelligence.  Now if, by pinning enough additional sensors onto the hardware and enough tweaks into the software of an AI programme we can get it to deal with complex situations as successfully as can now be achieved by a competent human, that may be fine.  Or maybe not.  Maybe such a programme would reveal an alarming capacity to break away from the rules it has been given and re-programme itself to aim at different goals.  I am not sure what the next stop is after programmes that can re-programme themselves in ways that cannot be predicted before the programme is put into action.

    But in the meantime NSA has generously allowed others to have access to large swaths of the verbiage accumulated, tens of billions of words and billions of (attempted) sentences.  The ‘civilian’ uses to which it can be put are various and legion.  For instance coupled with the right search programme it may be able to tell you what words to avoid in arguing with the Inland Revenue Service.  With a bit of judicious selection it could enable doctoral candidates to run up a thesis in an hour or two using obscure sources unlikely to be known to examiners.  Portions can be rented out to (politically acceptable)  journalists 1 allowing them to check for phrases associated with genuine intentions of declaring war, or indicating when denials of unpleasantly eccentric personal behaviour are false   It can be rented out to academics for use as a cliché engine, showing e.g. which politicians have least originality (using stock phrases or even whole speeches taken from other politicians), which English-speaking current heads of government show most signs of developing dementia, and which parts of the latest successful literary prize-winner were, apart from a few changes of wording, originally written by Jane Austen.  (It will not do much business in Ireland, however, since it depends, obviously, on logging phrases of two or more parts which occur together more frequently than chance would predict, and in Ireland it is a point of dishonour to find it necessary ever to say the same thing twice.  Consult e.g. Myles na Gopaleen: The Best of Myles.)

1 please see list to be issued shortly by the new administration


How to annoy an organist

A simple conversational gambit: “Why do you keep saying what a marvellous instrument it is?  After all it’s really just a giant stationary bagpipe, isn’t it?”


Tales of old Kalgovia No.136

In 1314 Krombald the Loyal struggled over two trackless mountain ranges to deliver the message which saved his king Otto the Miser by warning him that a force of the fearsome Oghuz were on their way to capture his capital city, disguised as merchants.  As he finished his message Krombald collapsed in front of the throne groaning because of the terrible pain in his legs.  King Otto stepped down from his dais and looked suspiciously at Krombald but at last said, “Loyal fellow, it seems your legs have done me a very great service.”  A pause, then he added “And I suppose, now you should have a reward.  But the royal coffers have hardly enough even for the great feast of the Third Moon.”  Again a pause.  Then speaking slowly, he said “I cannot alas make you a lord of the realm for immemorial custom binds me then to invest you with a tunic of gold cloth, and as I tell you my treasure is all gone.  But if you can, stretch out your leg.”  King Otto took his sword and tapped the right leg with it, saying “I declare this leg to be a lord of this realm.  There now, it is done but a leg has no need of a tunic of gold cloth.  A silken sock should suffice.”   He stood looking down, an obvious thought going through his mind.  Krombald groaned  slightly, and the king, looking doubtfully at the left leg, muttered “This one perhaps fared a little better.”  He then ennobled the left leg, but only to the rank of knight hereditary.  Thus for centuries Kalgovia was unique in Europe as a land where only certain body parts of descendants in the male line ranked as aristocratic.  The right leg, specifically of margrave rank, is still entitled to that dignity but is in exile as all aristocrats were expelled from Kalgovia following the first World War, and Colonel Zygmund Debrodzhe of the Royal Kalgovian Hussars naturally decided that the remainder of his body should accompany the margrave leg into exile in the Côte d’Azur.  However, the left leg was amputated above the knee in the war as the result of injuries received under bombardment.  In 1924 a European Court of Heraldry ruled that even if the Colonel were to have a male heir, his left leg could not inherit a nobility which had been obliterated by those injuries, and consequently the knightly line is now extinct.