Cheque it

It is rarely enough that I write a cheque, it feels like a special occasion, like signing a Declaration of Independence, or abolishing nuclear weapons. So when I do I write it out all fancy. I like to think it impresses the people on the other end.

Believing in nonsense

The wonderful James Randi, speaking at TED in 2007, takes a lethal dose of homeopathic sleeping pills before proceeding to berate fake psychics, fake mediums, fake homeopaths, and all of the other charlatans and con artists who make money from the vulnerable, the grieving and the sick.

The Green Hornet

Some people like cars, and some do not. If you are in the second, mistaken category and you do not want to know the result, look away now.

This is my Lotus Elan which gets all the love and attention I would otherwise lavish on a girlfriend (assuming she was small, green and noisy, and drank petrol). It is not an exact analogy (for example I did not usually wash my last girlfriend in the car park, and then buff up her bodywork with wax polish), but still it is a deep and serious relationship which none may put asunder.

There is a prevailing assumption that anyone driving a sports car, especially a convertible, must be a rich wanker. I try to dispel this by being extra courteous to other road users, letting old ladies cross, showing people my bank statements, etc but it does not always work. Basically people are going to be a bit envious of someone driving an awesome car, and well they might be.

Unlike some high-performance cars the Lotus is happy to toodle around all day at sensible speeds listening to Classic FM and pausing for old ladies. Then when you merge onto the motorway a mere blip of the throttle transforms this car into a rampaging beast, pushing you back in the seat and deafening you with the high-pitched turbo whistle and the deep, fruity blatter of the exhaust.

Like all Lotuses it is immensely light. It is built of fibreglass over a steel monocoque chassis, and the light weight in combination with the turbocharger makes it accelerate like a racing motorbike. The suspension is low and stiff, and the steering precise, so that this car loves nothing better than twisting country roads and tight cambered bends.

Its one Nemesis is the speed bump, which taken carelessly can produce a horrible scraping sound and, eventually, a new exhaust. Still I would never trade it for any other car; it looks great, sounds great, goes fast, and can carry up to 3 bags of shopping.

I heart my Lotus.

More Asterix books

Don’t miss these great titles, coming soon:

The salt of the earth

Salt of the earth” is one of those canned phrases that we chuck around without really thinking about it. It’s usually a compliment. But have you ever actually tried putting salt on the earth? It’s a great way to completely screw it up. Nothing grows if you put salt on the earth. So describing someone as “the salt of the earth” is like saying “Wherever they go, they create a barren, poisoned wasteland”.

The phrase, like many other good soundbites, originates with Jesus. But what did he actually mean by saying in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:13), “Ye [disciples] are the salt of the earth”? Incidentally, he also told them, “Ye are the light of the world,” which makes an odd contrast with John 8:12 (“I am the light of the world.” Which is it Jesus, make up your mind.)

First of all, in New Testament times salt was very valuable. It is a terrific preservative, and makes things taste great. Just think of bacon! Whether or not salt was worth its weight in gold, it was economically pretty important for most of human history.

One of those things that everyone thinks they know is that Roman soldiers were paid in salt (hence the term ‘salary’). This is not true, or at least I don’t know of any evidence for it. If you think about it how would that actually work? You bring a wheelbarrow to work on payday and take it home piled high with salt? Wouldn’t it be more useful if they paid you salt one week, then some fish and chips the week after, so that you didn’t end up with just a house full of salt?

There are those who argue that Jesus was using the metaphor of salt in its preservative sense. The disciples are charged with preserving the Earth, being the guardians of the world and keeping it pure. This is not very convincing. Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who believed that the world as we know it would shortly come to an end (“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” - Mark 1:15), so why would he charge the disciples to preserve it?

Presumably Jesus did not mean the phrase as an insult, so what did he mean? Another suggestion is that he meant it in the sense of salt being a fertilizer (which it is, in small quantities). The disciples should nourish and fertilize the seeds of Jesus’s message (and Jesus was keen on seed and planting metaphors).

This seems more plausible, but there is a problem. Salt is only good for the earth in tiny quantities. Too much kills the plants and renders the soil useless. So was Jesus saying that there should only be a small number of disciples, and that a large following would poison his message and damage the world? Not likely. Alan Kreider explores the salt metaphor in an essay called Salty Discipleship and quotes Paul Minear as saying “The extreme variety of interpretations… indicates the absence of any decisive clue to its original meaning.”

One further suggestion is that Jesus was referencing the fact that salt was a symbol of God’s covenant with his people, thanks to its being a mandatory addition to animal sacrifices (“And every oblation of thy meat offering shalt thou season with salt; neither shalt thou suffer the salt of the covenant of thy God to be lacking from thy meat offering: with all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt” - Lev 2:13).

Jesus was a great one for quoting Scripture. He seems to have an Old Testament quote for every occasion, though he frequently adds to or changes the message of the passages he quotes (“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth [Lev 24:19-20] But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” - Matthew 5:38-39)

So it seems at least arguable that Jesus meant to say that the disciples were like salt in the sense that they were an essential part of his sacrifice. Jesus, after all, is the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29) and says in Mark 9:49 that “Every one shall be salted [preserved] with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt.”

Alternatively, maybe Jesus just really liked salt.

The broad margin

I gave up Facebook and Twitter for Lent, which was interesting. I thought it would be harder than it actually was - once I stopped checking those sites for a couple of days, I forgot about them. I thought it might give me more time for doing interesting things in real life, and also result in more writing on this blog.

My business Twitter account was taking up quite a lot of time, because I use it to try and make as many connections as possible, and that results in wading through a lot of crap (and, to be fair, making people wade through a lot of my crap). Letting that lie fallow for a few weeks doesn’t seem to have done me any harm - and I have put more time and effort into the business blog as a result.

I read the article in today’s Guardian entitled Giving Up The Internet with some amusement. Mark Hooper writes:

I swapped Facebook updates for lengthy phone calls (often via a phonebox; 50p gets you nowhere these days). I read more, I cooked more, I wrote a few postcards (and managed to forget to leave enough space for the stamp). I drew. I went on long walks. I drove to Hastings and ate chips on the beach… But, most of all, I did nothing –and it was great. I could physically feel my head rising above the water again as the stream of information subsided.”

I don’t suppose anyone on their deathbed will be wishing they’d updated Facebook more; in fact, I’m finding my day more than filled with wonderful things, chief among them Nothing. These famous words from Walden sum it up:

There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.

I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been. They were not time subtracted from my life, but so much over and above my usual allowance. I realized what the Orientals mean by contemplation and the forsaking of works. For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished.”

The Lad of the Lamp

Well I spent a pleasant week or two at the castle, recovering from some germs, and pursuing a rigorous programme of beer testing. Also, clearing out junk, sweeping, repairing and polishing various things including a lovely old brass paraffin lamp. If you are old enough to remember the 1970s, electricity had not been invented then, or was briefly made illegal, I forget which, so lots of people grew to love the cosy glow of a paraffin lamp, accompanied by the cosy glow of your house when the lamp set fire to it.

I polished up this lamp, hoping there might be a genie inside, or a djinn, but there was not a djinn, or genie, so I did not get to make some wishes. It got me thinking about what my wishes might be though. I would probably wish for:

  1. A super cosy house in the country, preferably close to my Mum, with a garden for growing vegetables, marijuana etc, and next to some woods and a little stream. And the house would have a library for all my books, plus crackling log fires, a fully-equipped workshop for hobbies, big kitchen, guest rooms so my friends can visit, and lots of comfortable armchairs for reading Patrick O’Brian novels in. I know that is a lot but I would also like a Lotus sports car parked outside, if possible a convertible in British Racing Green, for going to the shops in, or booming down country lanes in the sunshine.
  2. Being my own boss where I do not have to turn up to some place for work every day, but can still earn money using my main professional skill (swearing at computer screens), but decide what I want to do and when to do it, or if I just want to take the day off and look at some interesting wildflowers, or stare vaguely out of the kitchen window. And if I turn up 15 minutes late to work, my boss (still me remember) will take me aside into his office and say “You’ve been consistently late to work every day this week. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to stay in bed a bit longer, and just start whenever you feel like it?” Or give me a performance-related bonus, of some crisps.
  3. Obviously an infinite number of further wishes, which the people in stories mysteriously never ask for, which just shows that people in stories don’t think things through properly. “You did say anything, right? So that would include more wishes, or another genie / djinn / cursed monkey paw. Hop to it!”

Looking carefully at this list though, I see I already have the first two, and the third is kind of an optional bonus which I do not really need, but I believe in rationally maximising my benefits in case someone is crazy enough to offer to grant me wishes. So things are pretty good at the moment basically.

A cry for help

It’s time to grow up and admit I have a problem. I may be clinically addicted to hash browns. Not anything drug related. Those frozen potato things.

Just as heroin addiction is treated with methadone, you need to control the problem by weaning the addict onto a less harmful substitute. That’s why I’ve volunteered for a hash brown dependency programme. With the help of my doctor, I’ll be gradually transitioning to a carefully monitored regime of prescription latkes.

No, I will not read your novel

NaNoWriMo is a programme which encourages people to write a novel in a month. Controversially, I’m against it. There is not such a shortage of bad novels in the world that we need a special nationwide effort to generate more of them. Even NaNoWriMo’s own web site says:

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It’s all about quantity, not quality. Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap.

The fact is, everyone is capable of writing crap, and so far from needing encouragement, most people need to be discouraged from doing it. Often with a stick.

Writing is a very pleasurable activity, of course, and one that’s generally undertaken in private. However, just as with many privately pleasurable activities, other people do not necessarily want to watch you doing it, or for that matter to inspect the results.

I recently had the privilege of being asked to read an acquaintance’s novel which was mysteriously failing to find a publisher. I’m happy to say I solved the mystery within a few minutes of reading. There are books which just need a little judicious editing, and then there are books which are acutely, fundamentally, hilariously unsalvageable. As Josh Olson puts it in I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script:

It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.

In the world of music, they say that a good composer is slowly discovered, while a bad composer is slowly found out. The author of this particular book, while perfectly able to string words together into sentences, is a bad writer in such a basic sense that if you cut him vertically in half with a bandsaw (which I heartily endorse) you would find the words ‘Bad Writer’ engraved on his heart.

This doesn’t mean you can’t be a successful writer, of course - many terrible books are published every year and often sell in huge numbers. But the world definitely does not need more bad books, and so I propose a NaNoNoWriMo: National No Novel Writing Month - and I humbly submit the above as my entry.

Now, where’s my cheque?

Life

Life is simple, at least in principle. You start with a grid of cells, each of which can be either alive or dead (on or off). Then for each cell you apply the following rules:

  1. If a living cell has less than two living neighbours, it dies
  2. If a living cell has two or three living neighbours, it survives to the next generation
  3. If a living cell has four or more neighbours, it dies
  4. If a dead cell has exactly three living neighbours, it becomes alive

The results are astonishing. From a randomised starting position, Life rapidly develops a rich, complex and structured behaviour. It’s a little like watching time-lapse movies of bacteria growing in a dish. Patterns sweep through the grid, collide, explode, intermingle, and die out. Static structures arise and remain fixed unless something crashes into them, in which case they often explode into another frenzy of activity. Constantly-moving structures (called “gliders”) soon appear which continue migrating in one direction forever (unless they hit something else).

Hundreds of distinct denizens of the Life universe have been identified and named, including boats, toads, blinkers, spaceships, gliders, loaves, beehives, puffers, scrubbers, revolvers, toasters, ships, mangoes, beacons and washerwomen. Although it looks random, Life is completely deterministic - the same starting pattern will always go through the same steps and end up in the same state, no matter how many times you run the program.

Some starting patterns very quickly die out or produce uninteresting static patterns (or oscillating patterns which cycle through some fixed states forever). Others produce enormously long and varied evolutions which sometimes seem to almost die out, then surge back into life with a coruscating display of explosions and recolonisation. Some rare patterns produce activity that never stops. It’s not intuitively apparent which starting configurations will produce interesting results and which won’t.

The point is that this game wasn’t invented, it was discovered. All of this complexity, richness and variety was lying concealed in the simple ruleset above, waiting to be found. If we ever meet aliens, it’s quite likely they will have discovered Life too, and they will be familiar with the same patterns and Life denizens that we are.

There is another mathematical game called Langton’s Ant which in a similar way produces remarkable complexity from almost the simplest imaginable rules, iterated repeatedly. At times its behaviour seems completely chaotic, and at others it settles down to produce straightforward, stable, repeating patterns that look “designed”.

Stephen Wolfram has written a whole book (A New Kind of Science) about such iterative systems, called cellular automata, in which he explores the space of all possible rulesets and what they produce. The interesting thing is that most cellular automata are not interesting. Pick a set of simple rules for the system’s development, and nine times out of ten you get a cellular automaton that just does nothing, or produces very boring patterns like straight lines or checkerboards.

Once in a while you hit on a set of rules that looks very similar to all the others, but inexplicably produces an enormous flowering of complexity and structure, in the same way that the endless beauty of the Mandelbrot set arises from repeatedly iterating a simple mathematical operation. John Conway experimented with several possible Life-like games before finding this one.

Similarly, the game of Go has almost the simplest rules possible for any game, and yet gives rise to a dizzying universe of tactical and strategic complexity which even master players are far from having fully explored. Yet if you try to alter the rules of Go slightly, you mostly end up with dull games like Tic-Tac-Toe which don’t show the same fascinating emergent complexity.

If you have access to a Life program which lets you alter the rules of the game, such as how a cell’s neighbours affect its life or death, you will find that almost any variation in the parameters results in something quite boring. So we have two surprising results:

  1. The universe can produce surprising (to us) complexity from small sets of simple rules, iterated over a long time. Our brains don’t intuitively see how that complexity can arise.
  2. The exact rules that you choose matter very much, as most of the resulting systems are not complex or long-lived enough to be interesting. Our brains can’t see an intuitive difference between the dull rulesets and the ones that have the “magic”.

This matters because many people look at the enormous variety of patterns and rich structure in the universe around us, and don’t see how it can have emerged without intelligent intervention (a Creator). This is quite natural, and stems from the fact that human brains are optimised for catching gazelles, not doing mathematics.

In fact, once you see the emergent complexity of Life or Langton’s Ant, it’s less puzzling. Electrons, photons and quarks are very simple entities, described by just a few numbers, and follow very simple rules for how to behave. Yet from that simplicity emerges a vast array of complex and highly patterned objects: stars, galaxies, flowers, ants, rainbows, computers, bacteria, the rings of Saturn, and mathematicians.

If the numerical parameters of particle physics were slightly different in various ways, they would lead to a very uninteresting universe: one where stars never form, or all the matter clumps into a cold undifferentiated mass, or you don’t have matter - you get the idea. In fact it’s very difficult to tweak the rules of physics even slightly and get a universe that can produce life, or even Life. Understanding why this should be (and consequently, why we should be) is one of the most important problems in physics.

Without doubt, if the rules of the Game of Physics didn’t have the “magic” that they do, we wouldn’t be here to speculate on them. But that isn’t an explanation, merely an observation (the anthropic principle). It may be that there is an infinite multiplicity of universes in which the rules and parameters take all possible values, and the vast majority of such universes are dull, or empty, or short-lived, or otherwise uninteresting. That being so, we naturally would find ourselves in one of the interesting universes. There might be even more interesting ones out there.

Alternatively, there might be a deep and important reason why things have to be the way they are (or very similar to the way they are) which we don’t know yet. I hope the reason is not that we are God’s screensaver.