The Secularization of Cannibalism

December 14, 2010

I’ve been reading an interesting old book recently, and it’s given me much food for thought.

The book is called “The Golden Bough“, by one Sir James Frazer, and is one of the first exhaustive – and exhausting – examinations of common themes in human behaviour in relation to magic,  superstition, and religion.

I was thrown for a six by one of the cases he mentions: apparently in the Fiji Islands, the pre-Contact chiefs had aggregated such mana, such spiritual power that having a hair-cut was fraught with terror at the thought that it might cause universal natural catastrophe – and to protect against that,

XXI. Tabooed Things

7. Ceremonies at Hair-cutting

The chief of Namosi in Fiji always ate a man by way of precaution when he had had his hair cut. “There was a certain clan that had to provide the victim, and they used to sit in solemn council among themselves to choose him. It was a sacrificial feast to avert evil from the chief.”

Yes, that was a rather more fraught time, and those Fijians didn’t then have the benefit of the knowledge we have at our fingertips and mouse-buttons, etc, ad nauseam … I got to thinking though, that described the behaviour of the Great Powers and the Superpowers, and of course the now-diminishing Hyperpower, to a T!

I consider the behaviour of the UK and France during the Suez Crisis, the behaviour of the Soviet Union during the first Afghan War, and likewise the behaviour of the United States during the current Afghan War … in all cases mentioned, a Great Power is on its way out, and needs to readjust its behaviour and priorities.

But a readjustment of priorities is such a traumatic experience – that Iraqis, Afghanis, Yemenis, Pakistanis, etc, have to die, to feed the “mana” of the said Great Power. Human sacrifice has not disappeared with the Enlightenment – it has, to use the ancient and rather appropriate expression of the Sumerians of blessed memory, “Kingship came down from heaven“, and human sacrifice and cannibalism has been appropriately secularized – it is the State that devours lives, rather than individual chiefs eating their tribesmen.

Neuroscience as a Blood Sport

November 29, 2010

As should be well known, patients in hospitals are generally passive recipients of treatment – mostly because they have neither the knowledge, nor the interest in learning everything that relates to their medical problems.  Doctors are generally well pleased with that, though some don’t regard that as optimal.  Viz: Oliver Sacks, A Leg to Stand on, about his experience as a patient.

What is not expected is that the patient becomes concerned about his or her lack of knowledge of his medical condition and seeks to correct it by all possible means, including giving himself a private education in said medical science.

That was my scenario. I, a BA in Classics(Latin) at the University of Canterbury, and a Licentiate of Theology(Hebrew) at College House, was knocked off my bicycle one dark night in the middle of winter, and left for dead.

I “came to” about five days later, ie, I got my short term and long term memory subsystems in sync – I’d been fully conscious since the hospital operated on the very night of my accident; they didn’t have any choice as it turns out – extradural haematomas don’t give any time frame for dithering.

After reading the pamphlet on the brain and brain injury the hospital gave me, since I needed to know just what had happened, and what was going on, I scoured the local library for as much information on the neurosciences as possible, but I never got much joy until I picked up Oliver Sacks’ The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, and discovered that there was a set of sciences around the study of the brain.

I bought the book, wrote away to various University Bookshops and ordered some books that happened to be either recommended by Oliver Sacks, or were in print, or both, to wit:
A R Luria, The Working Brain
Dr Muriel Lezak, Neuropsychological Assessment
Guyton, Basic Neuroscience: Anatomy and Physiology

Also a few others, such as
Springer and Deutsch, Right Brain, Left Brain

All in all, light reading.

I was amused, though, after telling my neuropsychologist, Mr Peter Waddell, that I had decided to add the neurosciences to my list of accomplishments, and confessed that I found Lezak’s book heavy going, to have him add that he also found her book heavy going.  Compounded more than a few years later by another neuropsychologist I contacted, who expressed amazement that I had got through Luria’s book on my own.

The topping, the creme-de-la-creme though, came this year, when hearing from another neuropsychologist I had also contacted on another matter, that I had exceeded the reading list expected of graduate students at no less than Stanford University.

The question in my mind now is, how am I to indicate this to a potential employer? That I have a knowledge level in the neurosciences equivalent to what is expected of a Stanford University graduate?  That, in consequence, I have a quite a high level of research and problem solving skills – I had this horrendous accident, I got to and learnt about it, I worked out strategies to cope and beat back clinical depression without chemical assistance, and at the end of my clinical depression, I did the same thing with most of Computer Science.

It’s a mystery to me.  I find I face a quite considerable skills shortage on the part of the employers themselves – because they have never faced this sort of challenge, they discount that someone else might have succeeded in conquering it.

I wish I could find a way around this.

The Little Red Hen and the Dog in a Manger

November 29, 2010

Once upon a time, in a little land far, far away from any sense or reason whatsoever, there lived a little red hen, and a dog, in a barnyard.

Once upon a day, the little red hen discovered a little head of barley and suggested to the dog that they plant it it and take shares in it.  The dog refused – he had some reason to believe that the farmer was wanting him for some work, and he was sure to get much more of a return than if he contributed anything to the little red hen’s madcap ideas.

The little red hen went around here there and everywhere in the barnyard, asking hither and yon for someone to help her.  None of the other animals wanted to contribute.  None of them wanted to put in any effort.

So the little red hen said, “Looks like I’ll have to do it myself.”

So she did, scraping out a little plot to plant it, and watering it daily, watching the little plot turn into a glorious green patch of barley.

Time came to reap it, and she asked the dog first, and as usual, the dog refused – he had something more exciting coming up, he boasted, and didn’t have the time.  And likewise, so did the other animals.

So the little red hen got and did it herself, as per usual.

Meanwhile, the dog, in retreat from the farmer, slunk into the stable, and stretched out on the hay in the manger, and went soundly to sleep.

The little red hen reaped the barley and ground it and baked it – she had given up on hoping that the other animals would be willing to help.

The smell went throughout the barnyard, and all the animals came around, sniffing and begging for a byte of it, since it smelt so good.

The little red hen shook her head and said, “You had your opportunity ages ago to deserve a byte, but you refused.  So just get lost.”

The ox and the horse, both miffed at this, stamped off into the stable to get some comfort food – and they awoke the dog, who leapt to his feet, snarling and barking.  “Get lost,” he barked.  “This is mine!”

*    *    *

I first discovered the use of folk tales as political messages in 1982, when I abstracted a version of the Little Red Hen that was being used to criticize the unemployed – back then, the idea that some people would be long-term unemployed was regarded as horrendous – and indicative of bad faith on the part of the unemployed. While on the other hand, employers also whined about the lack of subsidies, or insufficient subsidies, etc.

Both attitudes are still very much current. Except now that the employers also add complaining about skills shortages to the mix. Skills shortages are for everyone else to fix, not them; while tax cuts and so on and so forth are very much demanded.

New Zealanders appear to have an extraordinary ability to deceive themselves.  Back in the early twentieth century, there was a man called Richard Pearse, who dreamed of flying machines, and who built several rather intriguing examples.  He was ignored for the most part, and mocked for the rest. Now that he is dead, and no longer in a position to contest the case, New Zealand proclaims him as a prime  exemplar of New Zealand ingenuity.

The two examples of New Zealand ingenuity I see are the way that New Zealand managed to ignore him during his life, and the way in which New Zealand managed to claim his hard work its own after his death.

Or put it another way, he had a major set of skills that New Zealand wasn’t prepared to back, wasn’t prepared to admit was real, or even necessary.

It seems to be the way New Zealanders behave – most of all, they all seem to want their hand-outs, even when they don’t need them. But any time you need a hand up …

The Joy of the Fife

June 12, 2010

I have recently taken up learning Wind Instruments, purely and simply for the fun of it, and though I started out with the Ocarina, and still have a place for it in my affections, then moved on to the Recorder, and likewise, have a place for it in my affections, I have added to this growing list of what some people term “Instruments of Torture”, the Fife.

The Fife, of which I have two, are the Aulos nine-hole and the Yamaha eight-hole. I would love to get my hands on the Fife-and-Drum six-hole Bb instrument, but I haven’t seen any in the local music shops, and I doubt there’s any call for them in New Zealand. And the Piccolo – in roughly the same register – is currently way outside my price bracket.

One of the things which I have re-learnt from my Soprano/Descant Recorder days, is that it is not that easy for a bare beginner to pick up the lower notes. I may have had a lot of luck on the Yamaha Fife, because I can play the lower notes without any trouble at the moment: I still have difficulty in playing them of the Aulos Fife.

At any rate, I have decided to put in writing some of my Fife doodlings, the stuff that gets me up-to-speed and confident with playing my Fife in the lower register, in the hope that they might be of use to other Fifers – in abc notation CDEFG, always bearing in mind that the Fife, like the Soprano/Descant Recorder, is written an octave below its actual sound. Because I do not at this moment have enough memory to run something like MuseScore on my Linux box, I am writing it in abc notation.

And to maximize enjoyment, and to forestall the tears that needing to retain an “Intellectual Property Rights Lawyer” would cause, I am releasing this music under a Creative Commons (Attribution | Non-Commercial) license (If it is important to you to use this commercially, please get in touch with me.). Corrections are welcome.

Share and Enjoy!

T:Fifing Exercises
C | E<F G E | C D<E F | G E/2G/2 C | E F<A G | A G/2F/2 E | F A/2G/2 D | E A F | D E C |

August 22, 2007

Microsoft has a way about them. It’s quite unmistakable. They’re all for “ease of use“, which sounds fine, except you don’t quite know what is meant by that.

I’m all for giving someone a fighting chance, so instead of merely repeating other people’s criticisms, I decided to try some of Microsoft’s products.

I borrowed a book, “C# Weekend Crash Course” by Stephen Randy Davis, from the local public library, intending to get myself up to speed in C#, since I now had legally, courtesy of the local major tertiary institution, a student’s ID, and Microsoft’s own student’s release of Microsoft Windows XP, and Microsoft Visual Studio 2007.

So I start entering the example code in the book.

It works. Fine, I’m on the right track.

Even better, I like the language, C#. It does make sense to me.

Except I notice an interesting, and somewhat puzzling thing – every time I come to a particular type of entry, and paused for a few seconds, Visual Studio went ahead and entered the code it wanted, in the vacant spot. I would be typing away, looking at the keyboard, and look up after a short while, to discover that not only had Visual Studio completed the code I had been typing, it had leapt ahead a few lines – a “{” and another ending in “();” and a “}” – and had entered something nothing like what I was about to enter.

In other words, Visual Studio has innovated Artificial Stupidity.

Given how closely Mono has been tracking C#, I begin to worry that Monodevelop will copy this Artificial Stupidity as well. Perhaps it’s just as well that I can’t install Monodevelop on my Linux box.

Shakespeare and the Art of Coding

March 18, 2007

That, for a start, is “coding”, not “codeine”.

What is the relationship between Shakespeare and the Art of Coding? Is there a relationship between prancing around on a stage reciting sonorous lines of poetry and salacious prose, and the noble art of sitting down to a session of hacking out a solution to a problem?

If so, what?

I took a course in writing plays last year. I even was the sound of the mournful wind in the hills in a one-horse town in the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island during the Gold Rush days, during a play on that very subject.

One thing that struck me, watching the course teacher, who by then was a friend, changing her play on account of the actors’ concerns about how it could be made better. It was so much like how I was taught to program. Find out what is required, then find out some more, and even then you won’t have the full story. Then when you think it’s finished, it won’t be, and you’ll need to start over again, at least for some sections where it just doesn’t work …

And then there’s the performance aspects of it.

A book is perfectly satisfactory just sitting on a shelf. Fiction, non-fiction, religious, reference, whatever. It doesn’t need to do anything.

A play is next to pointless just sitting on a shelf:
“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
“Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
“To the last syllable of recorded time;
“And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
“The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!”

That requires expression. You need someone on a stage, hands out, voice breaking, then hardening, as the small glimpse we are shown of Macbeth’s heart is blown out by the shock of his wife’s death and the impending attack by the son of the man he killed to gain his throne, in alliance with the English.

In much the same way, software is written to be performed. Unlike prose, it doesn’t fully exist without a computer to “perform” it. Minix or Linux, for example, without compilation is as uninspiring as Macbeth without performance.

But the other thing is that, much like a play may well be altered dramatically from its printed version, in order for it to actually work on stage, so software may also need to be radically altered to enable it to work in new situations.

Shakespeare knew most of this, insofar as it relates to plays – that is why people still go to see his plays performed, that is why people still wish to perform them. That’s why people still work their guts out editing the text, confused as the original Quartos and Folios often are.

And that’s the link between the Bard and Software. I could have said that in fewer words, but I wouldn’t have known as much about what I was saying, if I had.

Microsoft chickening out of a challenge?

October 24, 2006

For as long as I can remember, Microsoft has been the paragon of the super-competitive software company. For as long as I can remember, Microsoft was the epitome of the company that would pull out all stops to meet a challenger on said challenger’s own territory and face it down. For as long as I can remember, Microsoft has never chickened out of a challenge.

It now appears that Microsoft is doing precisely that. The software developers are finding the non-Microsoft offerings, in particular, the Free/Libre and Open Source offerings such as Linux, attractive.

I had thought that Microsoft would do something, and lo and behold, they did something – as little as they could get away with. They released the Visual [Programming Language] Express series, to draw the attention of the hobbyist developer; they even released the set under a relatively free and open license. This is truly a wonderful thing – previously, the only way you could get a Microsoft software development product free of charge, without incurring obligation, was to do something morally indefensible and download warez.

The major problem with that is, Linux is, and has been for quite some time now, the premier software hobbyist development platform. And none of the Visual [PL] Express series runs on Linux.

I realized this after downloading and installing OpenWatcom, the open-sourced Watcom C/C++ and Fortran compiler suite. For what it’s worth, I now had software that could compile something written for everything from [MS|PC|DR|Free|Rx|etc]-DOS through the OS/2 16 and 32 bit and the Netware NLM to the Win16 and Win32 APIs. With gcc, I can compile for a vast set of 32 bit and 64 bit computers and APIs. About the only thing missing is something to compile stuff written for 8 bit environments – but there are compilers for that as well, that I haven’t got on to yet.

Microsoft’s Visual [PL] Express series are splendidly optimized for the latter stage of the Win32 API. But if that is not where the action is, they are missing the boat – just as they almost missed the Internet.

So here’s the challenge, and I’m wondering if Microsoft is capable even if willing, of taking it up – to release the Visual [PL] Express series source code under the Microsoft Community License, with some hints as to how it can be ported to Linux and FreeBSD. And use it as a loss-leader.

Failing that, I expect software developers’ focus to continue to move to tools like Eclipse … and Microsoft to continue failing – subtly, but still failing.

Patently absurd – conjugating Microsoft

October 1, 2006

Well, I suppose it had to happen – Microsoft Corp., wrote a program, and decided its chief feature – indexing verbs by infinitives – was worthy of a patent.

To quote from the application, the abstract to be precise:

Method and system for selecting and conjugating a verb

A verb conjugating system allows a user to input a form of a verb and display the verb forms. The verb conjugating system allows the user to input the infinitive form or non-infinitive forms of a verb. When a user inputs a non-infinitive form of a verb, the verb conjugating system identifies a corresponding base form of the verb. The verb conjugating system then uses the base form to retrieve and display the verb forms for the verb. The verb conjugating system may highlight the non-infinitive form of the verb within the displayed verb forms to assist the user in locating the verb form of interest.

There are books on the open market that do as much. I could mention a few, if the general public is really that interested:
The Penguin Russian Course, compiled by J.L.I. Fennell, Penguin Books, 1961

NOTE: Henceforth verbs will be given in the vocabularies in the infinitive. pg 16

But what is worse, is that the technique used for this purpose, happens to be commonly known and understood amongst heavy users of spreadsheets, Excel users not excluded. Can anyone say @VLOOKUP or @HLOOKUP?

Let’s see, in my copy of Joe Spreadsheet, by Goldstein Software, Inc, Dryden Press, 1988, ISBN 0-03-020837-8, I find this definition of HLOOKUP, pg 188:

@HLOOKUP() works by first comparing the values in the first row of range with x. This first row is the pointer row. Once @HLOOKUP() finds a value in the pointer row which is greater than x, it backs left ine column, the goes vertically down the table to row in that column. @HLOOKUP() then returns the value in that cell.

If that’s not enough, I could quote much the same thing from my copy of The Twin: Educational Version, Prentice-Hall, 1987, ISBN 0-13-935388-7.

Ditto for Cascading Style Sheets. Or …

Do I really need to go on?

Microsoft has had the chutzpah – translated ‘stupidity’ in this case – to attempt to patent something that is so widely used and understood in both language learning and ordinary business computer usage, that one is left agasp. Microsoft appears to be volunteering for the Gratuitous Stupidity award.

Let’s not withhold something so well-deserved!