Wednesday, December 31, 2014

San Francisco Window Washer falls more than 10 stories, lands on car roof - and lives!

I used to work two blocks away on Montgomery Street, and I walked past this building very often. What a story. Imagine falling off of this roof:

SF window washer, motorist both survive brush with death
SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- An unbelievable accident closed off parts of California and Montgomery streets in San Francisco's Financial District Friday morning. A window washer fell from an 11th story building, landing on a moving car below. The victim survived but is in critical condition. It's hard to believe the driver of that car was not hurt.

The window washer fell from the roof and landed on a Toyota Camry. All but the driver's area was caved in. The driver, Mohammad Al Cozai, narrowly escaped being critically injured.

"As soon as I made my left turn, then I saw something hit my car very hard. The impact was really hard. I didn't know what it is," said Mohammad Al Cozai of Dublin.

After landing on the car, the window washer fell onto the street. Witnesses ran to help. [...]

Window washer survives 11-story fall from S.F. building
[...] The driver of the car, Mohammad Alcozai of Dublin, got out almost immediately after the impact. The victim hit the roof and back window of the 2002 four-door Camry, totaling the car. A split-second difference in timing and the worker might have landed on the windshield, with potentially terrible consequences for Alcozai.

“It was a miracle,” Alcozai told The Chronicle.

A traveling tech specialist, Alcozai said he was supposed to go on a call to Walnut Creek on Friday morning, but after it was canceled he wound up in San Francisco. As he was about to turn onto California Street from Montgomery, his car’s navigation system went blank, so he slowed down.

As the system turned back on, he sped up — “and that’s when something hit my car with a terrible thump,” he said.

“With all the changes in where I went and how I was going this morning, I think God wanted me to be there just at the moment that poor man fell,” Alcozai said. “It was a miracle that he was able to fall in my car, and it was a miracle that I was OK.

“I just hope he comes through all right.” [...]

Follow the links for photos and video. Yikes. It's quite miraculous that he hit it the way he did, when he did. And it looks like he's going to survive:

Window washer who fell from downtown San Francisco building set to leave hospital
OAKLAND, Calif. – A window washer who fell 11 stories from a downtown San Francisco building onto a moving car last month is preparing to leave the hospital for a rehabilitation facility where he hopes to walk again.

Pedro Perez, 58, fractured his pelvis, broke an arm, ruptured an artery in his arm, and sustained severe brain trauma when he landed on the Toyota Camry after falling from the top of a bank building in San Francisco's financial district on Nov. 21. The car's driver was not injured.

Perez spent a week in a medically induced coma and still can't move his right arm and leg. But just a month after the fall, he has amazed doctors who originally said it would be months before he could leave the hospital, his wife, Maricela Perez told reporters on Monday.

"They are saying it's a miracle," she said through a translator.

Maricela Perez spoke in Spanish about her husband's recovery at his union shop in Oakland. She said he is in good spirits, complaining about the hospital food and even joking about returning to work down the line, although the couple has agreed it won't be as a window washer.

She said she thought he was dead for the first hour after she heard about the accident. At first, her husband could not recognize members of their extended family, but his memory is slowly improving, she said.

"As a wife, I am very grateful to have my husband for the holidays," she said. [...]
I read somewhere that he doesn't remember the accident. The shock must have been enormous. Lucky to be alive, and recovering. I wonder if one day he will remember what happened?

Russian Economics in the Global Economy

It what's bad for Russia, bad for us too? In our global economy, we're all connected:

The ruble's collapse is disastrous for Putin - and bad for you too
[...] Given President Vladimir Putin’s status as the West’s new bogeyman, the temptation to rejoice in the abrupt collapse of his regime’s economic clout is acute. Many will want to congratulate themselves at the success of economic sanctions, the aim of which was to punish Putin for his annexation of Crimea and its covert sponsorship of a civil war there.

They shouldn’t get carried away.

For one thing, it doesn’t make Russian concessions on Ukraine any more likely: the worse the economic pressure, the more the Kremlin’s propaganda will drum home the message that it is the Evil West, denying Russia its holy Crimean birthright, that is to blame. Opinion polls suggest that the vast majority of Russians still accept this version of events.

As such, Ukraine will remain a running sore, infecting both the European economy and, through it, the world’s. Moreover, Ukraine itself is on the verge of a default that will send shock waves through European and global financial markets, amplifying the effect.

A financial crisis in Russia would have much larger negative consequences than a Ukrainian one: western banks (mainly European ones) will have to write off more loans, western companies will have to write off investments. And that’s even if contagion doesn’t spread to other vulnerable emerging markets such as Indonesia or Brazil, both big recipients of western investment.

For the moment, the signs are that Putin is gambling on the oil market turning round, trusting to the legendary endurance of the people while his government keeps the plates spinning as long as it can.

In the meantime, the loyal will be taken care of. Covert bailouts to the country’s biggest banks from the country’s rainy-day fund are already getting more frequent. VTB and Gazprombank, two lenders that are “too-big-to-fail”, have already had their capital levels topped up.

But that is nothing compared to the egregious piece of money-printing that was agreed last week, when the central bank agreed to lend money against 625 billion rubles (still over $10 billion, even after Monday’s mayhem) of bonds freshly printed by Rosneft, the oil company headed by Putin confidant Igor Sechin. The aim is to let Rosneft hoard its export dollars and meet a $10 billion loan repayment later this month (and another $4 billion in February).

The realization that Rosneft, one of the biggest players on the foreign exchange market, would be buying far fewer rubles with its export dollars appears to have been one of the reasons for the ruble’s drop Monday (the failure of the central bank’s half-hearted rate hike and intervention last week also being partly responsible).

If the central bank shows anything like the same generosity to other companies, then the ruble’s debasement will be complete. The central bank now estimates that the economy will shrink 4.5% next year if oil stays at $60/barrel, and that is something that would certainly trigger a wave of corporate defaults.

Unless the ruble bounces back sharply, inflation is heading much, much higher than the 10% the CBR is already forecasting. Specifically, food, which makes up over 30% of Russian disposable income, is going to get more expensive (Russia imports over 40% of its food and has made a rod for its own back by banning relatively cheap produce from the E.U.).

Moreover, since over 80% of retail deposits are now held in rubles, devaluation means that the savings that Putin’s voters have accumulated as they came to trust their own currency over the last 14 years will be devastated. Already Monday, the yield on the 10-year bonds of a government that hasn’t run a deficit in 14 years hit 13%–anything but an expression of trust.

This is a recipe for social instability far greater than the tame, middle-class, metropolitan protests at Putin’s tainted election victory in 2012.

But what does an authoritarian leader do in such a situation? Back down or crack down? There is no evidence from this year to suggest Putin has suddenly become the backing-down kind. Repression seems the likelier option. If that doesn’t work, then doubling-down with another foreign policy adventure to distract from domestic problems hardly seems fanciful any more: in the summer, Putin cast doubt on the statehood of neighboring Kazakhstan, which doesn’t have the NATO guarantee that the Baltic States enjoy.

Either way, the consequences are too miserable to contemplate, both for Russia and for the world in general. [...]
Something to look forward to in the New Year? See the original article for embedded links and more.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

My Mother, My Dear Mother...

1938 - 2014

Here is an excerpt from her eulogy:

Judy was born in Portland, ME [...]. Raised mostly in Hartford, CT, she spent a lot of time with relatives in Maine. She often spoke of her grandmothers, Nana Bea and Ma Curry. She lost her beloved brother, Jimmy when he was just 20 years old. They had a very special bond and throughout her life she shared her many memories of him.

She wed her truest friend and the love of her life, Quintin, in 1956. From 1958 to 1963 they had 3 children – James, Charles and Quinci. Judy always said she knew she wanted to have a family of her own.

Who She Was to Her Husband and Children

She was a survivor, of circumstances in her youth over which she had no control.  She took control of her life at an early age and created a life and family for herself.

She made our house feel like a real home.  She made curtains for our bedrooms, painted the rooms of the house vibrant colors, did paint-by-number paintings to decorate our walls.  When her kids were young, she would read magazines and get ideas for Christmas decorations. She could perfectly recreate anything she saw in those magazines, making glittery and colorful hanging mobiles above the stairs, decorations around door frames, wall hangings, paintings of Christmas scenes on the glass of the front storm door... she transformed our house into a magical Christmas Land!  We kids were “wowed” by her artistic talents; it seemed like she could do anything.

In the summer, she planted beautiful flowers, morning glories up the sides of the front porch, a rock garden with portulaca in the center of the lawn, Easter Lilies and Jack-in-the-Pulpit in front of the house, and she grew all sorts of indoor plants. She had a green thumb, and taught us kids how to grow things, too.  She and dad worked on the vegetable garden, giving us a bounty of vegetables in the summer, with enough to can for winter.

She always prepared delicious and balanced meals for us, and friends were always glad to stay for supper whenever they had the chance.  She also loved to bake.  As we got older, she insisted that we do our share of housework, such as showing us how to cook simple things, mend our clothes and do laundry. It wasn’t until we moved out that we realized she had taught us how to take care of ourselves, helping us to be self-sufficient and independent.

Judy had a rich sense of humor, even exchanging pranks with her kids and laughing when others may have scolded. Her love of animals and appreciation of nature have always been an important part of who she was.

She could be shy and retiring, a bit of a recluse, but when it was necessary to interact with a lot of people (as in the hospital), she would rise to the occasion, and be very sociable.  She used to knit afghans and sweaters for people, with bright colors and interesting patterns, and give them away.

She created a lot of beauty in our lives that we took for granted, thinking that's just how life was supposed to be. Then we went out into the world and found that it's not always that way. Someone has to be doing it, to be making that beauty.  And fortunately, we had a good example from our mother as to how that is done.

“She was my wife, and our mother, and we loved her, and to us the world was a better place just for her being in it.  Just knowing she was there was a great comfort, and her absence now is sorely felt.  We miss her, because she was a part of us, and still is, and always will be.”
She was suffering from pulmonary hyper-tension and a calcified heart valve. She underwent surgery to replace the heart valve, but her lungs were too compromised, and she did not recover from the surgery. She was removed from artificial life support on June 11th.

We had the funeral in September, and buried her remains in a family plot at a rural cemetery in Maine. I went back for the funeral, and haven't blogged much since. It's been a lot to take in. My sister read this poem at the burial ceremony:

Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep
Do not stand at my grave and weep.

I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

Of course, I cried when she read that poem. So did she. The service ended with a Baptist Minister reading a variation of the Consolation Prayer, which felt both devastating (as in "This is it") and comforting (even though I am not religious). Then the box of ashes was buried.

As much as we say things like "Mom will live on forever in our hearts", it's still not the same as having her here on earth with us. Getting used to that is the new reality.

The movie "Rabbit Hole" dealt with the topic of grief caused by the loss of a loved one. I remember one scene, where an adult daughter (Nichole Kiddman) who has lost her son, a small child, in a tragic accident, asks her own mother (Diane Weiss), who had also lost a son, if the pain ever goes away. Her mother says no, but...

That is perhaps what people mean by the phrase "time heals". I have a feeling that it's going to be a lot like that.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Is the nearly extinct Northeast species of Republicans being brought back from the brink?

I once did a post about the demise of New England Republicans. It seemed like they were gone for good. But could it be they are making a comeback?

Return of the Northeastern Republican
[...] Republican political operatives say the gains the GOP is set to make are due to a convergence of causes. There is the fact that in the wave election year that 2014 seems poised to become, the party could win in even the most unexpected of places. There is the fact that in many of these states Democratic legislatures are entrenched, and voters are looking for a counterweight.

And finally, there is the fact that most of the culture wars have reached a stalemate. In Massachusetts, for example, Baker is running as a pro-choice, pro same-sex marriage Republican nominee. Other Republicans are similarly downplaying these hot-button issues of old, and pollsters say most voters see them now as settled matters. And so if two candidates are a wash on matters of civil rights, why not go for the guy who is going to cut your taxes?

“Republicans have just been putting together a more coherent message of change in New England,” said Will Ritter, a Republican political operative who worked on a number of statewide races in Massachusetts. “The Democrats’ message is what—‘Hey, it is not so bad?’ People look to candidates who have a business background, or at least have conservative underpinnings, when it looks like budgets are going off the rails.”

The major question for the Republican Party going forward is what all these Yankee newcomers will mean for its direction. The GOP has been at odds with itself as it tries to decide how to appeal to a diverse and changing electorate, and some Republicans think a handful of new voices from states not necessarily of the reddest hue could help the eventual 2016 presidential nominee.

“It takes a lot of Democrats to elect a Republican in one of these places,” said John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster. “You can’t win otherwise. You broaden your base, you broaden your message, it shows that you really want to get things done. And we need do to that, not just racially but demographically.”
But will the Republican party welcome these blue-state Republicans, or will they shoot themselves in the foot (again!) by declaring them to be RHINOs and try to drum them out of the party with social issues litmus tests, insuring that the Republican Party remains small, with only limited appeal to a small minority of the vast demographic of voters? You can be sure that the latter is what the Democrats are hoping and praying for.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Is Iran Our Allie Against ISIS?

Maybe. We have goals in common on that and other issues, and despite harsh anti-American rhetoric from the Iranian Government, the people of that country are often well disposed toward Americans:

The Truth About Iran: 5 Things That May Surprise Westerners
Since the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis of 1979, Iran has had antagonistic relations with the U.S. and other Western nations, with little official communication between heads of state, fierce rhetoric on opposing sides, and increasing sanctions.

Given this history, it's not surprising that many Westerners fail to appreciate ways in which Iran is a relatively advanced and even liberal state.

It certainly took me by surprise when I traveled there last year. [...]
Read the whole thing, for photos, embedded links and more.


Thursday, September 04, 2014

Language learning, before and after puberty

One can learn a 2nd language, before or after, but the way the brain accomplishes that may change:

Why Can't I Speak Spanish?: The Critical Period Hypothesis of Language Acquisition
"Ahhhhh!" I yell in frustration. "I've been studying Spanish for seven years, and I still can't speak it fluently."

"Well, honey, it's not your fault. You didn't start young enough," my mom says, trying to comfort me.

Although she doesn't know it, she is basing her statement on the Critical Period Hypothesis. The Critical Period Hypothesis proposes that the human brain is only malleable, in terms of language, for a limited time. This can be compared to the critical period referred to in to the imprinting seen in some species, such as geese. During a short period of time after a gosling hatches, it begins to follow the first moving object that it sees. This is its critical period for imprinting. (1) The theory of a critical period of language acquisition is influenced by this phenomenon.

This hypothetical period is thought to last from birth to puberty. During this time, the brain is receptive to language, learning rules of grammar quickly through a relatively small number of examples. After puberty, language learning becomes more difficult. The Critical Period Hypothesis attributes this difficulty to a drastic change in the way that the brain processes language after puberty. This makes reaching fluency during adulthood much more difficult than it is in childhood.


Noam Chomksy suggests that the human brain also contains a language acquisition device (LAD) that is preprogrammed to process language. He was influential in extending the science of language learning to the languages themselves. (4) (5) Chomsky noticed that children learn the rules of grammar without being explicitly told what they are. They learn these rules through examples that they hear and amazingly the brain pieces these samples together to form the rules of the grammar of the language they are learning. This all happens very quickly, much more quickly than seems logical. Chomsky's LAD contains a preexisting set of rules, perfected by evolution and passed down through genes. This system, which contains the boundaries of natural human language and gives a language learner a way to approach language before being formally taught, is known as universal grammar.

The common grammatical units of languages around the world support the existence of universal grammar: nouns, verbs, and adjectives all exist in languages that have never interacted. Chomsky would attribute this to the universal grammar. The numerous languages and infinite number of word combinations are all governed by a finite number of rules. (6) Charles Henry suggests that the material nature of the brain lends itself to universal grammar. Language, as a function of a limited structure, should also be limited. (7) Universal grammar is the brain's method for limiting and processing language.

A possible explanation for the critical period is that as the brain matures, access to the universal grammar is restricted. And the brain must use different mechanisms to process language. Some suggest that the LAD needs daily use to prevent the degenerative effects of aging. Others say that the brain filters input differently during childhood, giving the LAD a different type of input than it receives in adulthood. (8) Current research has challenged the critical period altogether. In a recent study, adults learning a second language were able to process it (as shown through event related potentials) in the same way that another group of adults processed their first language. (9)

So where does this leave me? Is my mom right, or has she been misinformed? The observation that children learn languages (especially their first) at a remarkable rate cannot be denied. But the lack of uniformity in the success rate of second language learning leads me to believe that the Critical Period Hypothesis id too rigid. The difficulty in learning a new language as an adult is likely a combination of a less accessible LAD, a brain out of practice at accessing it, a complex set of input, and the self consciousness that comes with adulthood. This final reason is very important. We interact with language differently as children, because we are not as afraid of making mistakes and others have different expectations of us, resulting in a different type of linguistic interaction. [...]
I enjoyed this, because I'm attempting to learn Spanish, and I've been reading a lot about the differences in the ways children learn a 2nd language, compared to the ways adults learn. Both can be successful, but it's important to find the right approach, particularly for adults, I think. Read the whole thing, for the many embedded footnotes and reference links.

And if you think you are too old to learn a 2nd language, you should read these links too:

Why adults are better learners than kids (So NO, you’re not too old)

The linguistic genius of adults: Research confirms we’re better learners than kids!

Breaking Down the Language Barriers


How to educate Americans for jobs

How to educate Americans for jobs? Ask the Germans, employers urge
INDIANAPOLIS — Two years. That’s how long it takes William Lankin’s fast-growing electrical contracting company to teach new hires with four-year university degrees the tricks of the trade.

These college grads “have learned the book stuff, but they don’t have real-world experience,” said Lankin, vice president of Industrial Electric. “They don’t know how to work with other people, or subcontractors — how to actually do business.”

Bringing them up to speed while paying them a salary is time-consuming and expensive, and even then there’s no guarantee that they’ll be good enough to keep. Which only complicates the original predicament: In spite of the still-soft job market, companies like Lankin’s can’t find enough qualified workers.

Now some hiring managers, a few policymakers, and a handful of community colleges are accepting help to solve this problem from an unexpected source: Germany

Through an initiative being quietly promoted by the German Embassy, U.S. colleges, which consider themselves part of the greatest higher-education system in the world, are importing the German model of career and technical education to keep up with a demand they can’t fill for skilled American workers.

“We said, ‘What is the best model?’” said Sue Smith, vice president for technology and applied sciences at Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College, which has teamed up with Lankin’s company to create a program for prospective employees based on what the Germans do.

“And, quite honestly, the German model is the best model.”

It consists of a so-called dual system of education and training that combines a few days a week of classroom instruction at vocational schools with on-the-job apprenticeships that are designed to lead to full-time jobs for which graduates are ready straight out of school. The German students also receive a form of credential called a certification qualification.

This simple setup keeps German industry humming, and youth unemployment down to about 8 percent — less than half of what it is in the United States — according to the German Embassy.

By comparison, routes to similar careers in the United States are convoluted and confusing, even as the need for workers to fill them escalates, a study by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development found. [...]
Read the whole thing for embedded links, video and more. There are some interesting comments in the comments section.

This website has a seven minute video:

Skills Initiative: Enhancing German-American Cooperation on Workforce Training
The German Embassy in Washington, DC presents the Skills Initiative as one of the cornerstones of its work.

Through the Skills Initiative, the German Embassy is bringing together German and American businesses and local education/training providers with the aim of developing training programs best suited to businesses’ needs. The Embassy launched the Skills Initiative to identify and spread best practices in sustainable workforce development in the USA.

Now the Embassy, through Skills Initiative, is seeking cooperation with federal states, locally convening groups of German companies and bringing them together with training providers so that they can work on the best fit for training programs in their area. [...]

The video has some interesting comments by American students who are participating and learning career skills, about why it is such an attractive alternative to college.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Largest outdoor arts festival in North America

A Look Inside the Burning Man Festival
Burning Man, held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, is the largest outdoor arts festival in North America. It began August 25th and runs through Monday. Festival-goers attend from around the world to “dedicate themselves to the spirit of community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance,” say organizers. Last year, 68,000 people attended the sold-out festival, which is now in its 28th year.

‘‘In all my travels, Burning Man is utterly unique,’’ Destin Gerek, an 11-year veteran who teaches Burning Man workshops on the ‘‘intersection of sexuality and spirituality,’’ told the Associated Press. ‘‘Absolutely nothing compares.’’
I'd rather look at it on the internet, than actually be there. A gigantic Artsy Fartsy, Hippy Arts and Crafts festival. With sex, drugs and rock and roll too I'm sure. And plenty of spectacles.

If you go to the page, and follow the "Next" link at the end of the text on the first page (or arrows on the edge of the photo), it will start you on a slide show of about 25 photos, with text underneath describing what you are looking at.

There were some interesting things. The Temple of Grace was nice, both in the daytime, and lit up at night. A very detailed, classic design, looked kinda like something from India. At night, electric lights were used in lots of creative ways on many of the exhibits.

There are more links about the festival at the bottom of the first page.

"Preserving and expanding the world of sustainable order is the leadership challenge of our time"

Order vs. Disorder, Part 3
[...] Seidman looks at the world through the framework of “freedom from” and “freedom to.” In recent years, he argues, “more people than ever have secured their ‘freedom from’ different autocrats in different countries.” Ukrainians, Tunisians, Egyptians, Iraqis, Libyans, Yemenis to name a few. “But so few are getting the freedom we truly cherish,” he adds. “And that is not just ‘freedom from.’ It is ‘freedom to.’ ”

“Freedom to” is the freedom to live your life, speak your mind, start your own political party, build your own business, vote for any candidate, pursue happiness, and be yourself, whatever your sexual, religious or political orientation.

“Protecting and enabling all of those freedoms,” says Seidman, “requires the kind of laws, rules, norms, mutual trust and institutions that can only be built upon shared values and by people who believe they are on a journey of progress and prosperity together.”

Such values-based legal systems and institutions are just what so many societies have failed to build after overthrowing their autocrats. That’s why the world today can be divided into three kinds of spaces: countries with what Seidman calls “sustainable order,” or order based on shared values, stable institutions and consensual politics; countries with imposed order — or order based on an iron-fisted, top-down leadership, or propped-up by oil money, or combinations of both, but no real shared values or institutions; and, finally, whole regions of disorder, such as Iraq, Syria, Central America and growing swaths of Central and North Africa, where there is neither an iron fist from above nor shared values from below to hold states together anymore.

Imposed order, says Seidman, “depends on having power over people and formal authority to coerce allegiance and compel obedience,” but both are much harder to sustain today in an age of increasingly empowered, informed and connected citizens and employees who can easily connect and collaborate to cast off authority they deem illegitimate.

“Exerting formal power over people,” he adds, “is getting more and more elusive and expensive” — either in the number of people you have to kill or jail or the amount of money you have to spend to anesthetize your people into submission or indifference — “and ultimately it is not sustainable.” The only power that will be sustainable in a world where more people have “freedom from,” argues Seidman, “is power based on leading in a two-way conversation with people, power that is built on moral authority that inspires constructive citizenship and creates the context for ‘freedom to.’ ”

But because generating such sustainable leadership and institutions is hard and takes time, we have a lot more disorderly vacuums in the world today — where people have won “freedom from” without building “freedom to.”

The biggest challenge for the world of order today is collaborating to contain these vacuums and fill them with order. That is what President Obama is trying to do in Iraq, by demanding Iraqis build a sustainable inclusive government in tandem with any U.S. military action against the jihadists there. Otherwise, there will never be self-sustaining order there, and they will never be truly free.

But containing and shrinking the world of disorder is a huge task, precisely because it involves so much nation-building — beyond the capacity of any one country. Which leads to the second disturbing trend today: how weak or disjointed the whole world of order is. The European Union is mired in an economic/unemployment slump. China behaves like it’s on another planet, content to be a free-rider on the international system. And Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is playing out some paranoid czarist fantasy in Ukraine, while the jihadist world of disorder encroaches from the south.

Now add a third trend, and you can really get worried: America is the tent pole holding up the whole world of order. But our inability to agree on policies that would ensure our long-term economic vitality — an immigration bill that would ease the way for energetic and talented immigrants; a revenue-neutral carbon tax that would replace income and corporate taxes; and government borrowing at these low rates to rebuild our infrastructure and create jobs, while gradually phasing in long-term fiscal rebalancing — is the definition of shortsighted.

“If we can’t do the hard work of building alliances at home,” says David Rothkopf, author of the upcoming book “National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear,” “we are never going to have the strength or ability to build them around the world.” [...]
How ironic. "Nation Building" was supposed to be one of President Bush's mistakes, according to Democrats. Is it now coming back into fashion, because a Democrat is in the Whitehouse?

This article does say nation building is beyond the capacity of any one country to do. OK then, who does it? The U.N., which has never been able to do it? And perhaps more importantly, who pays for it, in a world where national budgets are already severely over-extended?

The article does a good job of identifying problems, but solutions are more elusive. And don't get me started on his wish-list for putting our own house in order. If it were that simple, we'd be doing it. But that's a whole another article, or at least way more than a few comments that I could make here.

One thing seems certain. The "world of sustainable order" has got it's work cut out for it.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

OSU: Languages and Small Farming

I was looking at on-line language learning classes, and discovered that Oregon State University has one of the best on-line language learning programs in the country: OSU Online Foreign Language Courses

I was also surprised to learn that they have a course about growing your own small farm or ranch:

Growing Farms: Hybrid Course for Beginning Farmers
[...] Growing Farms: Hybrid Course for Beginning Farmers teaches those new to farming how to plan and manage a farm, while giving them tools to produce and market farmed and raised goods. The course also encourages interaction and community building among participants, helping build a professional network among small farmers and ranchers.

While developing a whole-farm plan, participants will learn about sustainable practices and land stewardship. The course encourages farmers to see how small farms and ranches fit into our community’s economic and environmental success.

It's called a Hybrid course because it's partly on-line, and partly on-site. But the online portion is also available by itself.

Participants can enroll in the full course, which includes six learning modules and onsite sessions, or the modules-only option.

Online modules

The modules are interactive and feature audio and video. Participants will test their comprehension with short, ungraded quizzes throughout each module and create their own farm plan.

1.) Dream It – Planning
2.) Do It – Farming Operations and Equipment
3.) Sell It – Marketing
4.) Manage It – Finance, Administration and Personnel
5.) Grow It – Ecological Agricultural Production
6.) Keep It – Liability and Risk

Onsite sessions with cohort:

The total number of sessions, times, dates and locations have yet to be determined.

In addition to the online modules and onsite sessions, a social networking website will be developed for participants in both course options.

"Provoking Emotions" = "Political Intolerance"

I guess it's good or bad, depending on if you are in power or not:

S. African President Walks Out of Parliament Amid Chaos
[...] Early this year, the public protector ordered Zuma to pay back to the state a portion of the $23 million used for security upgrades to the home. Zuma was in parliament to explain his response to the public protector’s report. “I have responded appropriately and I am saying people who did the upgrades at Nkandla, they are the ones who always determine who pays, when to pay,” he explained.

But the leader of the newly formed Economic Freedom Fighters, (EFF) Julius Malema, who was expelled from the ruling ANC partly for undermining Zuma’s authority, demanded a precise response. “The question we are asking today and we are not going to leave here before we get an answer, is when are you paying the money?” he stated.

When President Zuma insisted that he had already answered the question, there was commotion as EFF members refused to take instructions from the speaker of the House of Representatives.

It is at this point that Zuma decided to walk out. The speaker then temporarily adjourned parliament and called in riot police to eject EFF members, who violently refused and instead started chanting "pay back the money."

Chaos: scuffling, shoving

When it was time for parliament to resume, ANC members of parliament charged towards the EFF members, leading to a scuffle as they pushed and shoved each other.


The ruling ANC is now calling on parliament to slap the EFF members with the strongest sanction possible. In a strongly worded statement, the ANC warned the EFF not to provoke emotions, saying this could lead to political intolerance with dire consequences to the country’s democracy.
A bit ironic, that last statement. When the ANC was in political opposition, they did their share of provoking emotions. But now that they are in power, provoking emotions is a bad and dangerous thing.

Here is an earlier post I did, about the money issue the president is being questioned about:

What South African Taxpayer's Money Buys

I'm no fan of Julius Malema. But taxpayers everywhere have the right to question how the government is spending their tax dollars.

USB Devices and Malware Attacks

New Flaws in USB Devices Let Attackers Install Malware: Black Hat
[...] In a blog post providing more insight into the talk, Nohl and Lell reveal that the root trigger for their USB exploitation technique is by abusing and reprogramming the USB controller chips, which are used to define the device type. USB is widely used for all manner of computer peripherals as well as in storage devices. The researchers alleged that the USB controller chips in most common flash drives have no protection against reprogramming.

"Once reprogrammed, benign devices can turn malicious in many ways," the researchers stated.

Some examples they provide include having an arbitrary USB device pretend to be a keyboard and then issue commands with the same privileges as the logged-in user. The researchers contend that detecting the malicious USB is hard and malware scanner similarly won't detect the issue.

I'm not surprised, and no one else should be, either. After all, this isn't the first time researchers at a Black Hat USA security conference demonstrated how USB can be used to exploit users.

Last year, at the Black Hat USA 2013 event, security researchers demonstrated the MACTANS attack against iOS devices. With MACTANS, an Apple iOS user simply plugs in a USB plug in order to infect Apple devices. Apple has since patched that flaw.

In the MACTANS case, USB was simply used as the transport cable for the malware, but the point is the same. Anything you plug into a device, whether it's a USB charger, keyboard or thumb drive has the potential to do something malicious. A USB thumb drive is widely speculated to be the way that the Stuxnet virus attacked Iran's nuclear centrifuges back in 2010. The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) allegedly has similar USB exploitation capabilities in its catalog of exploits, leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

While the Security Research Labs researchers claim there are few defenses, the truth is somewhat different.

A reprogrammed USB device can have certain privileges that give it access to do things it should not be able to do, but the bottom line is about trust. On a typical Windows system, USB devices are driven by drivers that are more often than not signed by software vendors. If a warning pops up on a user's screen to install a driver, or that an unsigned driver is present, that should be a cause for concern.

As a matter of best practice, don't plug unknown USB devices into your computing equipment. It's just common sense, much like users should not open attachments that look suspicious or click on unknown links. The BadUSB research at this year's Black Hat USA conference is not as much a wake-up call for USB security as it is a reminder of risks that have been known for years


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Is Google Plus the next Borg? IMO, it's TMSTDW

It sure looks like they are angling to be! I found this video kinda funny, kinda creepy:

It was kinda informative too. It certainly nailed Facebook's faults. But I'm not ready to jump onto Google+ either. And if the video is right, I won't have to, because it will be inevitable...

I remember the early days of PCs and the internet. I would get tired of it and take a break from them for days at a time, sometimes even a week or more. My life did not revolve around the internet or the computer.

Now, I go on-line at least once a day, for the weather report, if nothing else. I usually glance at the news headlines on Google as well, just to get a glimpse of what's happening in the world. It's faster than watching TV, listening to the radio or reading a newspaper. It saves time!

Convenience. Speed and convenience. A quick way to get the information you seek. And there is much education and entertainment content too. A nice place to visit, but I still wouldn't want to live there almost 24/7. The internet's a good thing, but even so, too much of a good thing isn't necessarily a good thing.

What made me even look at this was, an online class I was interested in. The teacher wanted the students to sign up with Google+, because that was her primary mode of communicating with them (using something called "Hangouts"). So I tried to find out more about Google+. And my opinion of it so far is: TMSTDW (Too Much Sh*t To Deal With). But of course, if it's inevitable, I won't have to learn it, I can just wait until it assimilates me. ;-)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Esperanto as a bridge for language learners

In a previous post about Esperanto, the video below, a talk at TEDx, was referenced. I recently got around to watching it:

Published on Apr 13, 2012

Tim Morely thinks that every student should learn Esperanto. In this unexpected and persuasive talk, he makes the case that this supposedly archaic tongue can set up a kid for a lifetime of learning languages.

Previously a computer programmer, Tim Morley is now a teacher of English and French. He is pioneering an innovative programme for introducing young children to foreign language awareness using the constructed language of Esperanto. [...]
He has a lot of interesting ideas. He uses a musical analogy at one point. He says if you want to teach a child music, you wouldn't give them a Bassoon, because it's a difficult instrument to learn, and not suitable for a child just learning music.

Children learning music are given an easier instrument to learn: the recorder. It's simple, easy to handle, easy to learn, and the child can make progress quickly, which keeps their interest and builds their confidence. If the child enjoys it, THEN you can introduce them to something more complicated, more challenging, because you have already established their interest and built their confidence to the point where they want to and are inspired to keep learning.

Morely claims Esperanto can be used in the same way to teach children languages. I've also read that it can work the same for adults learning a second language for the first time, too.

I can see why. I've been looking at Esperanto at It's very logical and easy, in many of the ways that Morely describes in the video. He sites examples of studies that show language learners that start with Esperanto, do better than other students when they tackle other languages later.

Some people claim you can become fluent in Esperanto in a matter of weeks. How many languages can that be said about?

In the video below, Benny Lewis the polyglot teaches his girlfriend Esperanto in six weeks, with just an hour a day:

The whole video series is on Youtube here.

"Blondie", Satanism, and Christian Contemplativism

Two more interesting posts on the Philosophy for Life blog:

Crowley’s Children
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog-post analysing the video for Blondie’s Rapture, and pointing out the voodoo, occult and mystic symbolism in it. I wondered if Blondie were into that sort of thing, or perhaps I was seeing things. It turned out they were, and one of them – the bassist Gary Lachman – had even become a historian of the occult.

I met up with Gary in the British Library, to ask him about the influence of occult ideas on rock and roll – and particularly the ideas of Aleister Crowley. I’m interested in this because I’m interested in ecstatic states and how we reach them in modernity. Sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, and magic are part of that story. It’s not always a very nice story.


Crowley was a poster-boy for liberationist philosophy. It makes perfect sense that he would be picked up by rock and roll and later forms of pop music, because in many ways it’s tailor-made to the adolescent sensibility. Think of Jim Morrison’s ‘we want the world and we want it now’, or Iggy Pop: ‘I need more than I’ve ever done before.’ When you’re young you want to throw away all constraints on you. Crowley did that his whole life. His whole thing was excess in all directions.’

Liberationists want to liberate themselves from any social hang-ups, which means liberating themselves from traditional morality and even from reason itself. ‘Turn off your mind and float downstream’, as Timothy Leary said and John Lennon later quoted. Leary and other key figures in the 60s saw in Crowley a genius explorer of altered states of consciousness accessed through drugs, music, poetry and sex – just as they were trying to do. His Rite of Eleusis was a blueprint for the acid tests of the 1960s, and the raves of today – which also aim to bypass rational thought and get the audience into trances. [...]
Read the whole thing for embedded links, pics and videos. It was a fascinating read. Crowley's ideas pervade our society through pop culture. And when you see how Crowley ended up, it's not hard to see why many of his rock and roll followers crashed and burned. I love what the author, Jules Evans, says about the conscious and subconscious mind, and how Crowley used it, and the way Jules concludes the article. Good lessons for us all.

Gary Lachman apparently saw through the Crowley philosophy, and wrote a book about him, showing what a flawed man he was. Thank goodness.

Just for the heck of it, here is a video from 1979 of the band Blondie performing the song "Heart of Glass":

I had come across that video recently, and so when I saw Blondie mentioned at the beginning of that blogpost, it drew me in.

And on that same blog, I also enjoyed reading this article, which is an interview with the Bishop of London:

The Bishop of London on Christian contemplation
[...] I have a simple map of spiritual reality. We spend most of our time at the mental ego level, on the surface, with the self negotiating the world around – a self which we have largely manufactured and confected. It is very difficult to get modern people to understand prayer is not just a form of thinking at that level. That’s one of the fundamental errors and difficulties people encounter at the beginning of learning to pray.

At that mental ego level, there are often things of darkness which are unacknowledged. At the end of The Tempest, Prospero says of Caliban, ‘this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’, but often those dark things are left unacknowledged within us. And much religion is really dangerous and I would say lethal, because it is in effect the surreptitious re-ascent of the bruised ego.

We project parts of ourselves – our anger, all kinds of personal psychic material – into the middle distance, deifying it and conducting a solipsist conversation. God is very often a projection of some of this unacknowledged material.

You can see it very clearly: the God which causes people to smite and slay. Sane religious cultures which have lasted for a very long time have discerned that the real fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace and various other things. They certainly aren’t homicidal impulses.

So you have the mental ego level – and the adventure of prayer is to go beyond and beneath that – into the psychic zone, in which very often there are gifts of the spirit, charismatic gifts of various kinds – glossolalia, gifts of prophecy, and ecstatic utterance.

There is a great danger in falling in love with yourself once again as a spiritual person, in becoming too intrigued by these things, and to think ‘because I have these things I am a really serious Christian’. There has to be a continued Copernican revolution, and that revolution always turns us outwards in generosity to our fellows and in adoration to God. St Anthony the Great says we must see the Spirit in our neighbour, and love them.

But instead, what can happen when you have notable charismatic gifts, is once again a turning inwards, an admiration of the self. Lucifer the light-bringer fell, because he fell so in love with his own reflection.

And then after the psychic zone, there is what is called the heart, which for the Hebrews was not the blood pump, the heart for the Hebrews was the vitals, where the spiritual centre was actually located. And once you were quiet enough and had been educated by silence and stillness, and had gone through this journey, from time to time, you tasted from the eternal well-spring that there is at the heart of every life and all life, where the spirit is already there and praying in ways we can’t understand. [...]
The bold emphasis is mine. I found it interesting that, even though this is a different subject from the Crowley article, there are some parallel ideas expressed, about where people go wrong in looking for happiness. Not everyone finds happiness in the same way, but among the ways they do, there are often core ideas, realizations and truths, even inside of seemingly different philosophies. The perennial philosophy in philosophy, which is one of my favorite areas of interest.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Distraction as a form of Therapy

These are from a philosophy blog I posted about last week:

Distraction therapy, or ‘shut up and deal’
[...] Sometimes, in the darkness, we need to give our minds a rest, and find a distraction. Games are good for that. It reminds me of Billy Wilder’s film, The Apartment. Shirley Maclaine’s character has tried to kill herself with an overdose. Jack Lemmon’s character finds her, resuscitates her, and then tries to keep her awake and busy by playing cards with her. When she asks him what’s the point in life, he replies: ‘shut up and deal’ – a line she repeats to him at the end of the film, when she has recovered and they’re in love.
One of the few philosophers who understood our need for distractions amid the existential confusion was Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician. He’s a fascinating figure – he was one of the leading mathematicians of his age, he almost died in a riding accident, and then had a sort of near-death experience (known as his ‘nuit de feu’ or ‘night of fire’), after which he became a religious philosopher. But he’s fascinating even if you’re not theist - he’s really the first existentialist philosopher, in that he has an acute sense of the mystery of existence and the absurdity of human endeavour.

His Pensees, or ‘thoughts’, are a collection of brief meditations on existence. Here’s one of them: [...]
Read the whole thing. It actually starts with a letter from a reader, who talks about how his relentless search for meaning of the mysteries of life, lead to great and deep depression. And how he eventually got himself out of it, through distraction therapy, while still remaining a "seeker". The article then goes on to talk about how many of the great minds of history knew this, and how even modern medicine is recognizing it today.

Following a similar theme, another blog post is advice to a teenager, who decided after smoking Marijuana, that life was pointless, resulting in deep depression:

What’s the point in life?
[...] This is exactly what I felt like when I was in late adolescence and early adulthood. And I think it’s a classic psychological journey. It’s the Fall of Genesis. It’s also what happened to the Buddha – happy teenager, then a sudden shock to his world-view, then a period of depression and searching. A lot of us go through the Fall when we’re in our late teens or early 20s. It’s a nasty surprise, not something our parents or teachers told us about, although it’s described in many books.

The Fall is really an awakening. It’s our consciousness realizing that some of the things we believed in are actually a bit of a charade.

When I was 17 or so, I went through one of these awakenings – suddenly, the world seemed a rather sordid and selfish place. Everyone else seemed a bit of an egotistical phony, chasing after their shallow and pointless goals. Getting a career, getting a nice house with a nice lawn and a nice wife, getting a thousand followers on Twitter…what’s the point!

People are like greyhounds chasing after a mechanical rabbit, desperately trying to out-run each other, and if one of the greyhounds stops, scratches his arse and says ‘it’s just a mechanical rabbit’, they call him crazy.

And what lies beneath all the ego, all the desire, all the shadow puppetry? Nothing. The abyss. Human life is a game of charades played over a trapdoor of nothingness, and every now and then the trapdoor opens, one of the actors disappears below, and everyone goes on like nothing happened!


I didn’t exactly choose to awaken to the emptiness of constructed reality. It was an accidental awakening – maybe through drugs, which can alter our consciousness and make us see things differently. Some people go through similar accidental awakenings through, say, meditation – suddenly everything seems a bit empty and pointless. Or it might happen to them when they first lose someone they love. They notice the trapdoor beneath their feet and think: ‘what’s the point!’

This kind of awakening to the emptiness of our constructs has been called the Dark Night of the Soul. In truth, it happens occasionally through life. It comes with being human, unfortunately, and with being blessed / cursed with consciousness.

So how do we get out of it? How do we discover a sense of purpose or meaning?

People get out of the darkness two ways. Firstly, some people just fall asleep again. Life changes, and they stop thinking such deep thoughts, and get caught up in the game once more. Actually, this happens to everyone. You fall in love, you get a great job, you go on holiday, and things are fun again, and you shelve your inner Hamlet and enjoy the festivities.

There is nothing wrong with this at all. Sometimes the game of charades is a really fun game, and it’s fun to get involved, though unfortunately we often forget it’s just a game and end up totally believing in it and taking it very seriously.

Secondly, some people get out of the darkness by discovering a philosophy or an attitude that helps them through it and gives them a sense of meaning. Their old philosophy – ‘be happy-go-lucky’ - doesn’t quite work anymore, but they discover a new philosophy which works better.

I’ve turned to different philosophies to help me when I’m lost: Buddhism, Stoicism, Sufism, Taoism, Christianity. These are all quite different philosophies, but I think they have a core message to them.

Which is this: We’re here to know ourselves, to discover our nature, and to help other people do the same.

The journey to know ourselves is not an easy one. It involves a lot of wrong turns, a lot of dark forests, steep mountains and sinking swamps. And we meet bad people along the way, fools, liars, egotists, and people who wish us harm. What makes the journey particularly difficult is, when we ask passers-by how to get to our destination, they all give us different directions, and they all seem immensely confident that they’re right.

On this journey, I don’t think you can go backwards. You can’t go back to the Happy Valley of childhood. Frodo and Sam can’t go back to how things were, they’ve got to go forward. You have to go forward. Your consciousness grows – sometimes accidentally, sometimes through education and experience – and then it’s like you don’t fit into the old clothes any more, they feel cramped and ridiculous. That means it’s time to go forward. [...]
There's a lot more, with embedded links too. Pretty good stuff!

Not another NYT opinion piece on "inequality"?

Yes. And no. It starts by talking about Thomas Pikety's book "Capital in the Twenty-First Century", which everyone is talking about and buying, but also not actually reading, apparently:

An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality
We may now have a new “most unread best seller of all time.”

Data from Amazon Kindles suggests that that honor may go to Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” which reached No. 1 on the best-seller list this year. Jordan Ellenberg, a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Piketty’s book seems to eclipse its rivals in losing readers: All five of the passages that readers on Kindle have highlighted most are in the first 26 pages of a tome that runs 685 pages.

The rush to purchase Piketty’s book suggested that Americans must have wanted to understand inequality. The apparent rush to put it down suggests that, well, we’re human.

So let me satisfy this demand with my own “Idiot’s Guide to Inequality.” Here are five points: [...]
I can't repeat the five points, without reproducing the whole article here, so you'll have to follow the link.

I don't normally post about these kinds of articles, because they are often filled with "class warfare" rhetoric and drivel. And this NYT opinion piece has it's share of that as well. It's ironic that the author chooses to call it the "idiots guide", when I think some of the things he says are pretty idiotic (especially the option about rich people and expensive cars. Isn't it possible that rich people by expensive cars, because they like them and can afford them? Duh!).

But the article does have some moderate views, and does have a lot of embedded links to back up it's arguments. So while I may not agree with the article as a whole, it doesn't mean that it doesn't touch on some interesting facts or ideas. I'm not against rich people. But if indeed only the rich are getting richer, it's worth looking at why, and understanding why and how. I don't believe in communist revolutions redistributing the wealth. But a rising tide that lifts all boats IS preferable to one that only lifts yachts. Most reasonable people would have no argument with that.


Saturday, August 09, 2014

Would robots be better or worse for people?

There are conflicting opinions:

Pew: Split views on robots’ employment benefits
WASHINGTON — In 2025, self-driving cars could be the norm, people could have more leisure time and goods could become cheaper. Or, there could be chronic unemployment and an even wider income gap, human interaction could become a luxury and the wealthy could live in walled cities with robots serving as labor.

Or, very little could change.

A new survey released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center found that, when asked about the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs, nearly 1,900 experts and other respondents were divided over what to expect 11 years from now.

Forty-eight percent said robots would kill more jobs than they create, and 52 percent said technology will create more jobs than it destroys.

Respondents also varied widely when asked to elaborate on their expectations of jobs in the next decade. Some said that self-driving cars would be common, eliminating taxi cab and long-haul truck drivers. Some said that we should expect the wealthy to live in seclusion, using robot labor. Others were more conservative, cautioning that technology never moves quite as fast as people expect and humans aren’t so easily replaceable.

“We consistently underestimate the intelligence and complexity of human beings,” said Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher at Microsoft, who recalls that 40 years ago, people said that advances in computer-coding language were going to kill programming jobs.

Even as technology removed jobs such as secretaries and operators, it created brand new jobs, including Web marketing, Grudin said. And, as Grudin and other survey responders noted, 11 years isn’t much time for significant changes to take place, anyway.

Aaron Smith, senior researcher with the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project, said the results were unusually divided. He noted that in similar Pew surveys about the Internet over the past 12 years, there tended to be general consensus among the respondents, which included research scientists and a range of others, from business leaders to journalists. [...]
It goes on to give more opinions from educated people who make good cases for their opinions. Reading them all, it seems like no one can say exactly how it's going to play out, though a common theme of many of the opinions is, that over time, there may indeed be less jobs for people. And what changes will THAT bring? That seems to be the big question underlying it all.


A real "Warp Drive" for Space Travel

I had posted about this previously. Here is a video, talking about a possible prototype, if experiments on earth justify further research:


Saturday, August 02, 2014

Who was Epicurus? And more.

This blog page is probably the best thing I've read about Epicurus and Epicurians, it's answered most of my questions:


Who was Epicurus?

[...] How can we pursue pleasure as rationally as possible?

Like the other philosophies of the Socratic tradition, Epicureans believed that what causes humans suffering is our false beliefs. In particular, we have many false beliefs about what is necessary for our happiness. We put a great value on some external goods such as status and luxury, because we think they will make us happy. In fact, Epicurus says, many of these external goods are not good for us at all, and the pursuit of them only makes us more miserable.

Epicurus said that, for each belief or action, we should consider the pleasure it will lead to, and the pain, and then ‘measure the one against the other’. Some activities lead to a short-term spike in pleasure, such as heavy drinking, but ultimately lead to pain, in the form of hangovers, sick bodies and damaged relationships. We should restrict our desires to what is necessary and easy to attain, Epicurus says. So actually, contrary to the popular image of Epicureans as libertines, Epicurus and his followers lived quite austere lives, following a simple diet and not having many possessions.

Where’s the fun in that?

The simpler and less complicated your needs, the freer and less anxious your life. If you come to depend on luxuries, you’ll then have to work hard to support your lifestyle – and slaving away in a boring or stressful job is no fun. By restricting one’s desires to what is necessary and easy to attain, you free up more time for the good things in life: friendship and philosophy. It’s a sort of intelligent slacker philosophy that has quite a lot in common with the Idler philosophy of Tom Hodgkinson, who we meet at the beginning of the chapter. There are even some ‘life-coaches’ today, such as Stefan Streitferdt, who teach Epicurean philosophy as a way to prioritise your life and avoid unnecessary stress.


Don’t the Stoics use a similar cognitive technique?

Yes, the technique was also taken up by Stoic writers like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. They agreed with the Epicureans that it’s only in the present moment that we have any control. We don’t control the past – it’s already happened. And we don’t control the future. So the more we focus on the past and the future, the more we are disempowering ourselves. If we bring our attention back to the present, we are re-empowering ourselves, and being more efficient in our use of attention and energy.

We see a similar idea in Buddhism, of course, which developed a whole arsenal of techniques for bringing the attention back to the present moment. And this idea of focusing on the present moment, and our beliefs in the present, has been taken up in the last few years by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) . Both CBT and ACT insist that the way to get over emotional disorders is not by diving into the past and ruminating over all your conflicts with your parents, as psychoanalysis might get you to do. It’s wiser and more effective to bring your attention back to the present, to your beliefs in the here-and-now. As Seneca puts it: ‘What’s the use of dragging up sufferings that are past, of being miserable now, because you were miserable then?’

There’s also something mystical in the technique of focusing on the present moment. It’s telling us that everything we need in life is right here, right now, in our consciousness of the eternal moment. The more we bring our attention back to the present moment, the more we can savour it, appreciate it, and enjoy the strange wonder of being alive and conscious in the universe. We see some of this sense of the mystery and wonder of the present moment in the work of Eckhart Tolle. Here’s a video of Tolle talking about Marcus Aurelius’ use of the technique.

OK, but what if the present moment is actually pretty challenging. What if we’re suffering from a serious or painful illness, for example?

Read the whole thing, it's good, and there's embedded links too. But as interesting as Epicurian philosophy is, I don't think I would embrace it completely. Like much of ancient philosophy, I find much of it useful, but don't find the whole of it completely embraceable.

But the interesting thing is, the author of this blogpost has also written a book, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Problems, which sound quite interesting:

When philosophy rescued him from an emotional crisis, Jules Evans became fascinated by how ideas invented over two thousand years ago can help us today. He interviewed soldiers, psychologists, gangsters, astronauts, and anarchists and discovered the ways that people are using philosophy now to build better lives. Ancient philosophy has inspired modern communities — Socratic cafés, Stoic armies, Epicurean communes — and even whole nations in the quest for the good life.

This book is an invitation to a dream school with a rowdy faculty that includes twelve of the greatest philosophers from the ancient world, sharing their lessons on happiness, resilience, and much more. Lively and inspiring, this is philosophy for the street, for the workplace, for the battlefield, for love, for life.
I enjoyed the reviews by readers, many of whom say that the author talks about many of the teachings of the philosophies of the ancients, along with modern cognitive therapy concepts, giving the old teachings new relevance for our modern lives.

I find that exciting, because I've always been interested in cognitive therapy, and more recently, the philosophies of the Stoics, Epicurians and Buddhists. I've found myself wanting to learn from all of them, to get the best of each without having to embrace their weaker aspects; to in effect, benefit from their collective good, to use as a base in creating a happy, solid psychological foundation for dealing with life. Jules Evan's book sounds like it may be trying to do exactly that, so I'm adding it to my wish list!

Here is an excerpt from the book.

A final blog post

Not from me, but from the Being Human blog, which I had been reading because of the interesting links to philosophy. His last entry talks about his terminal illness, and the final things he had to say. It's quite sobering:

Is it finally time to say goodbye?
The Being Human -blog that you are reading just now is at the moment a collection of 434 smaller and larger essays. Their subjects range from the nature of our universe to things like the reasons why masturbation is seen as a sin in Christianity. I started this blog in December of 2007, and this blog has since had over 860 000 visitors from all over the world.

During all these years, I have told very little of myself. My aim has been to air my ideas and not promote myself. This blog is not weblog, but a collection of little essays. Not a single posting has been tied to a particular daily event or happening. They try always to be reflections on ideas on a bit wider perspective. How I have succeeded in this, remains for my readers to judge, of course.

Things are about to change. Just now I see a need to record some of my personal history also here in this blog that has always been the favorite child among my blogs. The basic reason for this is that was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in November of 2011. Cancer was by then already deeply embedded in my liver and lungs. It simply cannot be removed from liver without destroying the liver also, anymore.

I am still here thanks to chemotherapy that has given me an additional year and a half, but the therapies were terminated a week ago because their ability to fight my cancer has waned off. I am on my own now, but nobody knows how soon the end will come. However, it is quite certain that I will not see my 56th birthday in January of 2014. [...]
There is much more. He talks quite a bit about the things that were important in his life, and that helped him. I had linked to some of his posts in the past, and am very grateful for his contribution to my education, about things I've wanted to learn about.

Thank you, Jaakko Wallenius. R.I.P.

A propulsion drive without fuel?

Yes, and it may take us to Mars:

EmDrive Is an Engine That Breaks the Laws of Physics and Could Take Us to Mars
An experimental engine is gaining acceptance among scientists, and could introduce a new era of space travel — it only had to break a law of physics to do so.

The picture, below, is of the EmDrive. It uses electricity to generate microwaves, which then bounce around in a closed space and generate thrust. The drive does not need propellant, an important part of current space-travel mechanics.

The force generated by the drive is not particularly strong, but the implications are big. Multiple independent experiments have now replicated the drive's ability to generate thrust, albeit with varying success. Using panels to convert solar energy into electricity and then into thrust, opens the door to perpetual space travel fueled by the stars.

Scientists were slow to warm up to the EmDrive since it violates the law of the conservation of momentum. In addition to not being sure why it works — current theories rely on quantum mechanics — scientists also have some pretty good ideas why it shouldn't work. [...]
Follow the link for pics, video and embedded links.

Do Cats Really Rule?

Not everywhere, but in overall numbers, perhaps yes:

Where cats are more popular than dogs in the U.S.—and all over the world
We all know there are only two types of people in the world: cat people and dog people. But data from market research firm Euromonitor suggest that these differences extend beyond individual preferences and to the realm of geopolitics: it turns out there are cat countries and dog countries, too.

Here in the U.S., slightly more households own dogs than own cats. But Euromonitor’s numbers show that in terms of raw population, cats outnumber dogs to the tune of 2 million (the number is closer to 4 million, by the American Veterinary Medical Association's estimate). Why? One simple explanation is that cats are more compact. You can fit more cats in a house than you can, say, golden retrievers. (You can also geolocate a lot of them, which is fun, but entirely besides the point.)

At the state level in the U.S., cats outnumber dogs in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. Dogs are the favorite in the South and Southwest. The most dog-friendly state is Arkansas, where dogs outnumber cats 1.35-to-1. At the other end of the spectrum stands Massachusetts with 1.87 cats for every dog.

"A lot of that simply has to do with population density," Jared Koerten, a pet industry analyst at Euromonitor, said in an interview. "Many cities just aren't that dog-friendly."


World pet populations also appear to follow a few interesting—if inexplicable—trends. For one, highly developed countries, for reasons yet unclear, tend to have more balanced cat and dog populations. "Looking across all countries, there's a correlation between developed economies and balanced pet preferences," Koerten said. Brazil, as is turns out, has a strange affinity for small dogs—it has more small dogs per capita than any other country. [...]
Go to the original article to see the 10 top cat loving states, the 10 top dog loving states, and the countries around the world with their large differences. There is a color coded map of the states, and also a map of the world too.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

The evolution of AI (Artificial Intelligence)

I've posted previously about how slow it will be, that we won't have something approaching human intelligence anytime soon. But, eventually, as AI evolves, it could start working on itself, and then start advancing very quickly:

How Artificial Superintelligence Will Give Birth To Itself
There's a saying among futurists that a human-equivalent artificial intelligence will be our last invention. After that, AIs will be capable of designing virtually anything on their own — including themselves. Here's how a recursively self-improving AI could transform itself into a superintelligent machine.

When it comes to understanding the potential for artificial intelligence, it's critical to understand that an AI might eventually be able to modify itself, and that these modifications could allow it to increase its intelligence extremely fast.

Passing a Critical Threshold

Once sophisticated enough, an AI will be able to engage in what's called "recursive self-improvement." As an AI becomes smarter and more capable, it will subsequently become better at the task of developing its internal cognitive functions. In turn, these modifications will kickstart a cascading series of improvements, each one making the AI smarter at the task of improving itself. It's an advantage that we biological humans simply don't have.

When it comes to the speed of these improvements, Yudkowsky says its important to not confuse the current speed of AI research with the speed of a real AI once built. Those are two very different things. What's more, there's no reason to believe that an AI won't show a sudden huge leap in intelligence, resulting in an ensuing "intelligence explosion" (a better term for the Singularity). He draws an analogy to the expansion of the human brain and prefrontal cortex — a key threshold in intelligence that allowed us to make a profound evolutionary leap in real-world effectiveness; "we went from caves to skyscrapers in the blink of an evolutionary eye."

The Path to Self-Modifying AI

Code that's capable of altering its own instructions while it's still executing has been around for a while. Typically, it's done to reduce the instruction path length and improve performance, or to simply reduce repetitively similar code. But for all intents and purposes, there are no self-aware, self-improving AI systems today.

But as Our Final Invention author James Barrat told me, we do have software that can write software.

"Genetic programming is a machine-learning technique that harnesses the power of natural selection to find answers to problems it would take humans a long time, even years, to solve," he told io9. "It's also used to write innovative, high-powered software."

For example, Primary Objects has embarked on a project that uses simple artificial intelligence to write programs. The developers are using genetic algorithms imbued with self-modifying, self-improving code and the minimalist (but Turing-complete) brainfuck programming language. They've chosen this language as a way to challenge the program — it has to teach itself from scratch how to do something as simple as writing "Hello World!" with only eight simple commands. But calling this an AI approach is a bit of a stretch; the genetic algorithms are a brute force way of getting a desirable result. That said, a follow-up approach in which the AI was able to generate programs for accepting user input appears more promising.

Relatedly, Larry Diehl has done similar work using a stack-based language.

Barrat also told me about software that learns — programming techniques that are grouped under the term "machine learning."

The Pentagon is particularly interested in this game. Through DARPA, its hoping to develop a computer that can teach itself. Ultimately, it wants to create machines that are able to perform a number of complex tasks, like unsupervised learning, vision, planning, and statistical model selection. These computers will even be used to help us make decisions when the data is too complex for us to understand on our own. Such an architecture could represent an important step in bootstrapping — the ability for an AI to teach itself and then re-write and improve upon its initial programming. [...]

It goes on about ways that we could use to try to control AI self-evolution, and reasons why such methods may -or may not- work, and why. Read the whole thing, for many embedded links, and more.


A Chinese Fly from Hell

This looks scary:

Giant flying bug with fangs discovered in China
Researchers in China have found what is clearly the most frightening looking insect ... ever.

What's being called the Giant Dobsonfly has an 8.3-inch wingspan and snake-like fangs.

It's not entirely clear how much force would have to be applied to kill the dobsonfly or what sound is made by the insect as it is squashed.

But, we're entirely sure that the sound upon discovering a dobsonfly is a loud shriek, scream or cry.

How long until this fly is found in the states?

Exactly. [...]
It looks like something from the SyFy channel. It doesn't say that it can harm people, so perhaps it just looks scary? But what are those fangs for?

Apparently it lives in pristine water, and is very sensitive to water changes, even changes in PH. Follow the link, for video and more.


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Esperanto, a created, living language

I thought it was a kind of dead language, like Klingon. But apparently, it's not:

The creator of Esperanto, L.L. Zamenhoff, was a very interesting fellow:
[...] Zamenhof was born on 15 December (3 December OS) 1859 in the town of Białystok in the Russian Partition (north-eastern Poland) in the age of national insurrections. His parents were of Lithuanian Jewish descent, and his wife was born in Kaunas, in one of the biggest Jewish centres of the time. He appears to have been natively bilingual in Yiddish and Russian,[3] presumably the Belorussian "dialect" of his home town, though it may have been only his father who spoke Russian with him at home. From his father, a teacher of German and French, he learned those languages and Hebrew as well. He also spoke Polish, one of the major languages of Bialystok alongside Yiddish, (Belo)Russian, and German, and it was Polish that was to become the native language of his children. In school he studied the classical languages: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. He later learned some English, though in his own words not very well, had an interest in Lithuanian and Italian, and learned Volapük when it came out in 1880, though by that point his international language project was already well developed.[4][5]

In addition to the Yiddish-speaking Jewish majority, the population of Białystok was made up of Poles and Belarusians, with smaller groups of Russians, Germans, Lipka Tatars and others. Zamenhof was saddened and frustrated by the many quarrels among these groups. He supposed that the main reason for the hate and prejudice lay in the mutual misunderstanding caused by the lack of one common language. If such a language existed, Zamenhof postulated, it could play the role of a neutral communication tool between people of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

As a student at secondary school in Warsaw, Zamenhof made attempts to create some kind of international language with a grammar that was very rich, but also very complex. When he later studied English, he decided that the international language must have a simpler grammar. Apart from his parents' native languages Russian and Yiddish and his adopted language Polish, his linguistics attempts were also aided by his mastering of German, a good passive understanding of Latin, Hebrew and French, and a basic knowledge of Greek, English and Italian.[6]

By 1878, his project Lingwe uniwersala was almost finished. However, Zamenhof was too young then to publish his work. Soon after graduation from school he began to study medicine, first in Moscow, and later in Warsaw. In 1885, Zamenhof graduated from a university and began his practice as a doctor in Veisiejai and after 1886 as an ophthalmologist in Płock and Vienna. While healing people there he continued to work on his project of an international language.

For two years he tried to raise funds to publish a booklet describing the language until he received the financial help from his future wife's father. In 1887, the book titled Международный язык. Предисловие и полный учебник (International language: Introduction and complete textbook) was published in Russian[7] under the pseudonym "Doktoro Esperanto" (Doctor Hopeful). Zamenhof initially called his language "Lingvo internacia" (international language), but those who learned it began to call it Esperanto after his pseudonym, and this soon became the official name for the language. For Zamenhof this language, far from being merely a communication tool, was a way of promoting the peaceful coexistence of different people and cultures.[2] [...]
What a fascinating man. Read the whole thing for embedded links and more.

I've been reading about Esperanto lately, because I've been reading a book about language learning, Fluent in 3 Months. The author, Benny Lewis, recommends learning Esperanto as your first second language, because it's easy to learn, you make progress quickly, and many studies have shown that people who learn Esperanto as their first second language, have a much easier time learning other languages successfully. Benny talks about this on his website:
[...] I always encourage people to spend just two weeks learning Esperanto, for the purely pragmatic reason of it giving them a boost in their main focus language. There was a great recent TEDx talk specifically about this idea of using Esperanto as a springboard to learning other languages. But moving on from that, those you can use Esperanto with make it all the more worthwhile to learn.

At Esperanto events, I’ve made some fantastic open minded friends, and sang, laughed, argued, flirted (and more…), played, explored and eaten with them there. And while travelling, I’ve met up with other speakers who I know will share the philosophies of the community of open mindedness and friendliness, while being modern and forward thinking.

One way you can meet Esperanto speakers in many cities is via Pasporta Servo, which is kind of like Couchsurfing, only it started many decades before. I also simply use Couchsurfing itself and search for speakers of the language and Google info about the local city’s community. It turns out every city in China has an active Esperanto community, and I’ve met up with several speakers in this trip already!

Of course many of them are into language learning and travel, but we tend to talk about whatever else comes up. In many situations, the structure of the language actually lets you be more expressive than non-constructed languages. [...]
Read the whole page for embedded links, videos, and much MUCH more.