Monday, July 30, 2018

Fay Weldon on Jane Austen, writing, reading, and life.

     Fay Weldon. Letters to Alice on first reading Jane Austen (1985). An epistolary novel, in which Weldon gives advice about reading, writing, and life, and expatiates on how they intertwine and react on each other.
Alice is at university, doesn’t like Pride and Prejudice, and is writing a novel. Will she take Aunt Fay’s advice? Will Aunt Fay mend her relationship with her sister and brother-in-law? Will Alice finish her novel? Read the book and find out. It’s worth reading for many reasons, chief of which is Aunt Fay, whose company and opinions are exhilarating. Is she a version of Fay Weldon? Probably, but as Aunt Fay says, there is the truth of real life and the truth of fiction. Recommended, worth searching for. ****

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Kinsey finds more family: W is for Wasted

     Sue Grafton. W is for Wasted (2013). Two apparently unrelated deaths, one a murder, eventually tie up each other’s loose ends. Kinsey’s investigations garner her some relatives on her father’s side. Homeless people are a problem. Kinsey’s love life stutters, maybe in the next book (the last one Grafton wrote) there’ll be some kind of resolution.
     So the backstories move along a few steps, Kinsey discovers she likes cats afer all. Grafton has to use 3rd person interludes to move one of the plots along, and the reader knows all the guilt and innocence before Kinsey does. A long novel, more of a character study than a mystery. The plot focusses on how Kinsey discovers what the reader already knows. Grafton’s interest has shifted from solving crimes to understanding them and their effects. ***

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Money and Nature: Lapham's Quarterly

     Lewis Lapham, ed. Lapham’s Quarterly: Vol.1:2 “About Money” & Vol.1:3 “Book of Nature” (2008) The excerpts about money are in roughly historical order. They form a summary of the developing understanding of money, as well as a sometimes entertaining account of what can go wrong when people mistake money for wealth. Money is either the elixir of life or the worst invention of humankind.
     The earliest ideas ascribed intrinsic value to money: a gold coin had some objective value simply because it was gold. That idea began to unravel when the Spaniards brought tons of the stuff from South America and promptly triggered almost ruinous inflation. The latest ideas about money emphasise that it’s information: Almost all money these days exists as electronic data about some account balance. Money is a system of abstract IOUs. Instead of an IOU for, say, 10 bushels of wheat, we have an IOU for, say, $50. That $50 could be used to buy 10 bushels of wheat Or 8 measures of oil. Or a cask or two of wine. Or whatever.
     There are several accounts of bubbles, eg, the Dutch tulip mania of the 1600s. Ponzi schemes and other frauds also appear. These debacles occur because people want money. They see the bubbling trade in tulips as a means of amassing money. They see the fraudster’s con as a means of amassing money. Since both bubbles and frauds depend on credit for their initial success, they debase the value of money: they are one of the drivers of inflation.
     There’s more, but I won’t enlarge further. See my other posts aboiut money for further comments.
     Lapham claims he doesn’t understand the concept of  “The Book of Nature”. This collection belies the claim. It records the full range of human responses to the natural world, from denial that we are part of it (we “have dominion” over it, after all) to acceptance that we wholly depend on it (but on current evidence are destroying it). These two responses are present in the earliest myths. For example, Genesis records that God made Adam from the dust of the ground. That make humans part of the natural order. It also records that God gave humankind dominion over the every living thing. That puts humans above and outside the natural order. Or so the standard interpretation goes. More recent theology argues that “dominion” means stewardship. We rule the Earth on behalf of the Creator.
     Lapham’s quarterly collections add up to a history of the ideas that govern our choices. They show that our ancestors expressed every current notion about how the world works and how we should live. ****

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Perception: Colours

Fragment of a conversation in a newsgroup. The book did not figure inthe conversation. I think it supports my stance that colour is in the brain.

  I was once asked "How many colors are there?". A difficult question,   which many people can't answer, they've confused "how many colors" with   "how many WORDS for colors". 2^24 (16,777,216) is a better answer than that.

 I agree with 2^24, that seems to be as much as the eye can distinguish.

 Which doesn't mean that reality is so limited. Note that some animals see better than humans, which isn't relevant either.

There's a difference between colours as measured by a spectrometer and colours as perceived by a human. Eg, there is no such colour as "brown" in the spectrum. Or "pink". Or "grey". Or etc.

The 2^24 number of colours is the combinations of colour data used to display colours on a screen. Whether there are actually that many colours displayable on a given screen is another issue: screens vary quite a bit in quality, though much less nowadays than they did in the Olden Days. And whether a human can distinguish them all is another issue. And whether they can replicate natural colours in all weathers is another issue again. As anyone who's tried to make a photo "look right" knows.

As for "see better", that's not a clear concept either.

When it comes to perception, the only thing we can objectively measure or observe is what colour (or other sensory) differences the animal can distinguish. While it's true that bees can distinguish ultraviolet wavelengths, that doesn't mean they "see better". They see well enough for their survival, and that's what counts.

Or take frogs. Judging by their behaviour, they can't see fly-sized blobs unless those blobs move. I surmise that's similar to human peripheral vision, which is much better at distinguishing moving blobs of light than still ones.

Bottom line: what's "out there" isn't what we think it is.

The cost of idling the car


"... In fact, one of the most powerful arguments in favour of reduced idling is an economic one.
For the average vehicle with a 3-litre engine, every 10 minutes of idling costs 300 millilitres
(over 1 cup) in wasted fuel – and one half of a litre (over 2 cups) if your vehicle has a 5-litre
engine. Unnecessary idling wastes fuel – and wasted fuel is wasted money...."

My Mitsubishi Outlander has a 3l V6 engine which requires high-octane fuel. So at 1.60/litre (more or less), 10 minutes of idling costs about 50 cents, or approximately a nickel a minute.

Or $3.00 per hour.


Footnote: On hot days, at our local mall parking lot, I often see people sitting in their cars with the windows rolled up, the engine and air-conditioing running. Even on days when a nice breeze blowing through open windows would keep the car cool. I think this indicates that fuel s too cheap.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Grafton: V is for Vengeance. Shoplifting and murder.

     Sue Grafton.  V is for Vengeance (2011) Kinsey spots a shoplifter, turns her in. The perp’s confederate almost runs down Kinsey in the parking garage. From there the plots gets complicated, what with an organised shop-lifting business, a dysfunctional crime family, bent cops, and damaged people. Justice, of a sort, is done, and some perps will face a judge. As usual, Kinsey faces death and incurs injuries, but there’s less gore than usual.
     Grafton’s plot requires several chapters of 3rd person narration. She handles these well. I get the impression she feels more than a little constrained by Kinsey’s 1st person POV. The book is bigger than most of Grafton’s work, but it still feels unfinished. Grafton has always leaned towards a combination of social comedy and romance. The crime plots are just a rack to hang the clothes on.
     A pretty good read, but this time around I didn’t feel compelled to keep on reading, and there were stretches of a few days when I didn’t pick up the book. **½

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Artificial Intelligence (AI): A series of notes

“If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck” (Ancient wisdom)

Unless it’s a model of a duck.

Artificial Intelligence is model building – we want autonomous machines, but the best we can do is build models of autonomous machines.

Eg, an artificial ant could be made to behave like an ant in many ways, but not as an ant in an anthill, or capable of making more ants.

It’s probably possible to make an artificial ant that behaves like an ant in anthill. We may even be able to make an artificial ant that can reproduce in some way.

However, “behave like an ant” is not well defined. There are too many behaviours, and some are obviously easier to mimic than others. Nevertheless, it will soon be possible to make an ant-size robot that can navigate like an ant, climb vertical surfaces like an ant, etc.

But it will always be a model of ant, and therefore its behaviour will in some respect will not be antlike, and in other respects will be a bad imitation of ant behaviour. That’s simply the nature of models. Models are mixtures of emulation and imitation.

Intelligence is even less well-defined than “ant behaviour”. We can mimic some intelligent behaviours, eg, sorting, learning correlations, recognising patterns, and so on, which are useful to augment human tasks such as diagnosis of a fault or illness, or finding the data we want. If a task is well enough defined, we can build a machine to do it.

But that’s the problem: “Intelligence” is simply not well enough defined. My notion of it is the ability to apply and adapt existing knowledge and insight to unanticipated problems. Every term in that definition is fuzzy and vague. Anyhow, some people (including me) would argue it’s more of a definition of creativity than intelligence.

Is consciousness part of  “intelligence”? Many people would say it is. A machine that merely solves problems isn’t intelligent, it’s just an algorithm. It’s not enough to know how to do long division, you have to be able to recognise when and why you should do it. An intelligent entity then would be able to apply the rules of the algorithm to another problem. This claim entails that intelligence can abstract rules and patterns, and recognise them in different contexts.

“Understanding” is another component of intelligence. Isn’t it? Well, it does have something to do with learning: an intelligent person is one who can make sense of new explanations. “I don’t get it” at one extreme means “I haven’t figured it out yet”, at the other it means “I can’t figure it out”. The latter is a measure of intelligence.

And that’s just three attempts to make sense of “intelligence”. We’re long way from knowing exactly what we mean by “artificial intelligence”. Far enough that we may not even recognise it when we see it.

The recent development of “deep learning” artificially intelligent neural nets crystallises the problem. It’s already clear that we can evaluate the results of their operations, but we can’t figure out how they do it. What’s more, they have come up with solutions that humans have not only not produced, but have trouble recognising as viable solutions. For example, some AIs are better then humans at recognising cancerous tissue.

If we accept “intelligence” as a label for problem-solving abilities, then consciousness is not required. That makes the neural-net AIs more than a little spooky.

Accidentals and Essentials: Experience and Reality

Observation and Theory, Experience and
Imagination: What’s Real and What Isn’t

We experience things and processes, events and spaces, times and moments, extended sequences of events, and so on. We may name (or label) any such experience, and having done so, we tend to think of it as a unified experience, whatever its extent in space and time. Naming is the first step to theory, the precondition of explanation.

2.1 The things we experience are bundles of sensory inputs. They may be relatively simple bundles, such as the ones that we label “apple”; or complex, hierarchically layered bundles, such as “song”; or more complex networks of experiences such as “fair play”; and so on. But all experiences which we perceive or apprehend as having some kind of unity in space and time can be reduced to a bundle of sensations.

2.2 The “unity in space and time” seems to be a given. Neuro-psychological research indicates that it’s a product of the brain’s processing of sensory inputs. Comparing human and other animals’ perceptions clarifies that insight: a frog responds to a fly-sized object such as a raisin only when it moves. But when it moves, the frog will try to catch and eat it, even when it’s a raisin.

3.1 We learn in grammar class that nouns name essentials (apple, kitten, rainstorm, triangle) while adjectives name accidentals (red, soft, greasy, warm, loud, sharp, salty, etc). The trick seems to be to recognise what makes an apple an apple and not a kitten; and what features of an apple can vary without destroying its appleness. But these distinctions are illusory, since any description of the essence of an apple is merely a list of accidentals, its so-called properties. Botanical classification makes that quite clear. We may infer that “apple” is a the minimal collection of accidentals that differentiates it from pear, cherry, raspberry, peach, mango, .... Note that the properties overlap: it’s the differences between the lists that differentiate the fruits.

3.2 We can also differentiate objects by abstract qualities, such animate/inanimate, food/non-food, etc. Anthropologists have discovered that there are no universal classification systems. While there is little doubt that we perceive objects as more or less stable collections of sensations, that does not entail that we classify them that way. Apparently humans have a penchant for believing that whatever they name is real. So when we name some aspect of human behaviour as “just”, we start collecting the properties of Justice, and arguing with other people about which of these aspects are accidental or essential. Thus the white wig and black robe of a British judge are accidentals. But is the British Common Law a better system for arriving at just judgments than the European Roman Law? Any argument pro or con will rely on explicit and implict assumptions about the essence of Justice.
4.1 The brain combines sensory inputs into experiences. Some of these combinations are built-in, so much so that the brain organises different sensory inputs into the correct temporal sequence even though the processing time of the inputs varies so much that the results are in not in the correct sequence. When the brain fails to produce the correct image of the reality mediated by senses, its possessor is more or less deluded. If he knows it, he may well be more disturbed by that knowledge than by the failure to parse reality correctly.

4.2 Some of these combinations are inherently incorrect: we call them “illusions”, and the essential (;-)) point is that knowing we perceive an illusion does not cancel it. Nor does the fact that we have acquired  many, perhaps most, of these illusory parsings during the development of the visual cortex after birth.

A Comment on Ayn Rand

(A repost with some amendments)

 Ayn Rand and her followers worship money. But her notions on money are such a muddled mix of insight and delusion that it's hard to know where to begin a rational critique. From the Ayn Rand lexicon (

     Money is the tool of men who have reached a high level of productivity and a long-range control over their lives. Money is not merely a tool of exchange: much more importantly, it is a tool of saving, which permits delayed consumption and buys time for future production. To fulfill this requirement, money has to be some material commodity which is imperishable, rare, homogeneous, easily stored, not subject to wide fluctuations of value, and always in demand among those you trade with. This leads you to the decision to use gold as money. Gold money is a tangible value in itself and a token of wealth actually produced. When you accept a gold coin in payment for your goods, you actually deliver the goods to the buyer; the transaction is as safe as simple barter. When you store your savings in the form of gold coins, they represent the goods which you have actually produced and which have gone to buy time for other producers, who will keep the productive process going, so that you’ll be able to trade your coins for goods any time you wish.

    As soon as she leaves the standard definitions of money (means of exchange, store of value/savings), her key points drift into nonsense. One of these misleading notions is that gold has “tangible value”. Gold has no intrinsic value; its value as money is only and exactly what people believe it is. The Conquistadores could not understand how the value of gold among the Inca and other South American peoples could be so low. They looted the gold, took it home to Spain, and promptly caused ruinous inflation. It was only when Spain used its gold for external trading that it could be used as capital. So much for the intrinsic value of gold.

     The notion that money somehow buys time for future production misses the point. "Delayed consumption" is possible only when there is a surplus of goods or productive capacity. Money cannot create a surplus, nor is it needed to ensure that any surplus will be used. Humans have invented many ways of saving surpluses without money. What’s needed to create a surplus is a technology that multiplies the effect of human work, such as agriculture. What’s needed to delay its consumption is a system of values and customs that will ensure the surplus (such as grain) will be stored for later use and trade. Neither of these require money.

     Fact is, even today much trade is done without money. The basic rule of all trade is "mutual obligation". The members of families and social circles trade goods and services because sharing is one of the obligations of these social groups. They keep pretty close track of their trades, too. Exact matches aren’t required, but everyone is expected to share their goods and provide services as best they can.

     And like practically everybody, Rand misquotes St. Paul’s comment on money. Later in the article, she says, So you think that money is the root of all evil? . . .  Have you ever asked what is the root of money?

     St. Paul actually wrote, The love of money is the root of all evil. Look it up!

    Money is a way of making trade with strangers possible, and thereby creating mutual dependence. A very useful invention. Eg, just try to calculate how many people have been involved in producing a 98 cent ball point pen and making it available to you. It’s made of several kinds of plastics and metals, which had to be mined, refined, processed, and shaped. The pen had to be packaged, warehoused, transported, and shelved. Even in a small town where you know most people, you aren’t necessarily a close friend of the shop owners and staff, but they serve you all the same.

     A stranger is someone to whom you owe nothing, and vice versa. This makes interaction between strangers dangerous. Hence, all societies have had to invent ways of making at least temporary mutual obligation possible. Think of "guest right", for example. You not only have the right to stay among your hosts, they have an obligation to protect you. A pretty good deal; you’d better have some good stuff to trade with them.

     So why do all those strangers work to produce and deliver a cheap pen to you? Because money makes it not only possible to trade with people you will never see, it makes it easy to do so.

     Nowadays, money trades are used to measure economic activity. They’re totalled in the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, a number of such incomplete, gappy data that it causes pernicious delusions. The worst of these is the belief that an ever-rising GDP means we’re getting richer. Yet every time there’s major storm destruction, there’s a spike in GDP in the following months and years as the damage is repaired. I don’t think having to repair storm damage is making us richer. Besides, even in our highly monetised economy, about 1/3rd of economic activity does not involve money. In pre-money times, that was 100%.

     There is one value to the GDP: it can tell you how much of your spending eventually ends up in various pockets. Eg, in Canada, we spend about 10% of our GDP on healthcare. Every time we spend a dollar, a dime wends it way to the healthcare providers. Some of it gets there via taxes, some via insurance payouts, some via personal spending. So we could describe our GDP in terms of these three types of spending, but then we wouldn’t know what exactly the taxes, insurance payouts, and personal spending bought. What the GDP means all depends on how you analyse it. And that means that people with different axes to grind will analyse it differently.

     Basic rule about money: Money and wealth flow in opposite directions. This should be obvious, but most people tend to think that more money means more wealth. Money is only potential wealth, a point Rand doesn’t get quite right either, although her notion of money as buying time for future production comes close. But anyone who’s lived through extreme inflation, or has absorbed the stories of the people who did, knows that money isn’t wealth.

     I think everybody needs a good introductory survey course in anthropology, to learn about all the ways humans have organised the production and distribution of goods and services. It might cure one of the notion that our current economic arrangements are somehow natural or god-given. For over 95% of our existence as a culture-creating species, we humans have had no money. Yet humans managed to produce the goods and provide the services they needed. It’s true that money, because it accelerated trade, and more importantly enabled trade with strangers, accelerated the creation of wealth. But trade, and its beneficial effects on wealth creation and cultural exchange, existed long before money.

     2013-03-11 / 2014-05-23 / 2015-11-07 / 2018-07-03 / 2019-10-15