Monday, 26 September 2016

Vlangerina

Gratuitous, I know
Shock breaking news from ‘Tumbletown’. It has just been announced that Vlad and Tangerina have split after Vlad was allegedly found snorting coke off the breasts of a Dudley hooker (nice work if you can get it).This was the last straw for Tangerina. Vlad’s increasingly wild antics has driven his wife of two months to despair. She waxed lyrical today in a statement: “After much reflection and valium I have taken the decision to disenfranchise myself from Vlad. A sub-conscious uncoupling necessitated by Vlad’s increasing bizarre behaviour and the fact that he's banging cocktail waitresses two at time, sometimes without giving them time to serve his drinks".  

Vlad and Tangerina’s 27 children (sorry, make that 42) are said to be totally bemused as most of them had no idea that Vlad was their father. Huw, Blue, Polly, McGrew, Cuthbert, Dribble and Grub refused to comment today as none of them could speak a word of English.

Vlad  Slaps Pacs 
Inspector, ‘Nipper’ Ferret of the yard has initiated a top level investigation after allegations that Vlad raised his voice to one of the browner of his offspring. At a crisis meeting today, ‘Nipper’ had this to say: “What’s all this ere then. We can’t be having ageing film stars swanning around fornicating with starlets sundry and mildly berating children even if they are darkies. O no, we wont be having it. I’ve already instructed the crack Domestic Meddling Squad to fully investigate these very serious allegations. Rest assured Tipton rate payers, I won’t rest until ridiculous amounts of money are spent on this investigation. And if Vlad is found guilty he will receive the full weight of the judicial system and will become the recipient of mild censure in the popular press and much head waving and tutting from my good self".  

Although Tangerina has made it known that she will apply for sole custody of the children it is fully expected that Vlad will gain access to his kids with names beginning from A to L. However, the possibility that the children will be split according to skin tone cannot be completely ruled out.  

A typical Tipton resident, Mrs Fagend Mugumbo had this to say after being prodded with a taser: “Arrgh, arrgh, it burns, it burns”. Wise words indeed Mrs Mugumbo.

Vlad and Tangerina off to buy another baby

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Bad taste Sunday

Slot in the head with a penny
I know what you are all thinking- too soon? I can remember exactly what I was doing when it happened. My pram had been left on a grassy knoll next to the book depository in Tipton town. I was a waiting for the babushka lady. She didn't turn up. Methinks the slot should be a tad higher. What do ya think?

Friday, 23 September 2016

A life less worthy?


"There’s a one in billions chance [we’re in] base reality... I think it’s one in billions. We should hope that’s true because otherwise if civilization stops advancing, that could be due to some calamitous event that erases civilization, so maybe we should be hopeful this is a simulation. Otherwise, we will create simulations that are indistinguishable from reality or civilization will cease to exist. Those are the two options.”  Elon Musk.

Philosophers as far back as Plato (see the allegory of the cave) have reasoned that what we perceive is not reality. With the advent of computers and especially the stupendous increase in computing power, we have to ask ourselves- are we part of a huge computer simulation? Sounds ludicrous, doesn't it? Perhaps, but there are serious professional physicists and philosophers out there who consider the concept not only plausible, but likely. And no, these folk are not inmates of a secure mental health facility, they are, in the main, tenured academics. So on this rainy Sunday afternoon I'm going to look briefly at some of the arguments for and against the hypothesis: are we simulated entities spewing from a very, very, sophisticated computer?
The argument goes something like this as first proposed by the philosopher, Nick Bostrum in 2003: There is one of three possible scenarios for any civilisation. Of which only one is true.

1. Civilisations do not reach a 'posthuman' stage where they are capable of rendering highly sophisticated simulations using computer power.
2. Civilisations reach this stage, but for whatever reason (?ethics) they have no interest in running a simulation.
3. Sophisticated civilisations are running simulations and that there is a high probability we are living in a simulation.
Bostrum argues that at least some highly advanced civilisations would produce 'super-simulations'. He then contends that the possibility of a simulated world is not only plausible but likely. If our civilisation has progressed to this stage then our perceived world is not real (base reality) but a mere fabrication. In fact it doesn't have to be our civilisation devising the code. Maybe a highly developed alien civilisation has beaten us to it. Could 'we' exist as an experiment or as pawns in a simulated game designed for the amusement of little green men? Erm, this is certainly an interesting conundrum. What would this mean for our morality, ethics and how we view ourselves as 'humans'? And what about the ultimate, BIG, question- God: Is God an alien programmer?
Here is something to consider: Our computing ability has increased at a giddy rate over the span of just 60 years. Remember those simple tennis games of the early 1970s? Now contrast this with the complex role playing computer games of today. Moore's law, which originated in the 70s, simply states: 'computer processing power doubles every two years'. Tis a bold predictive statement but one that has shown to be pretty much correct. What will our computing capacity be in say, 20 years from now? I’m sure you will have noticed the problem of this sort of reasoning. To posit thusly, I’m assuming that we are not Sims, yet.
Something else to ponder. The universe seems fine tuned for our existence (Anthropic Principle). If the laws and fundamental physical constants were different to just a very small degree then a universe able to support life could not exist. The universe might be a very different place indeed; no stars; no planets; no aggregates of matter at all.  Of course, someone designing a simulation on a super computer would get the programme just right so that the simulation could work so we could exist. Those of a religious bent could perhaps see the 'hand of God'. Although it is also true that if the laws of physics were otherwise we wouldn't be here to ponder this quandary. Just because a set of parameters is improbable this should never equate as impossible. Here is a simple thought experiment: It is estimated that there are 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (let's call it X) grains of sand on Earth. This is about the same number of stars in the visible universe. If you could travel anywhere in the globe and select just one grain of sand the chances of you picking any particular grain would be 1 in X. Truly a staggering astronomical probability. But yet, there is that grain of sand, in your hand.
The grain of sand analogy neatly leads me to:
What is reality anyway? Surely impressions of the outside world impinge on our senses, carried by electrical signals to the brain where they are processed and interpreted to provide a sense of reality. How can it be otherwise? And if the universe is not perceived by a sentient being does the universe actually exist? Regardless, you have got to ask yourself: So what, if we are in a simulation or occupy base reality. Our reality is what exists for us, now. Would a simulated apple taste as sweet as a real one? I would argue, yes.
And finally, I would just like to say a few words about how all this relates to the concept of God. I mentioned earlier that if we are in a simulation then the ‘being’ running the show could be conceived as a god, to the poor pixels dancing to the programmer’s tune. I would argue to the contrary. Whatever a God, actually is, it is not an entity within our frame of reference. In other words, IT cannot be part of the natural universe but by definition, lies in the supernatural realm, whatever they might mean. A super programmer is very much part of the universe and consequently, like us, subject, to natural laws and hence causality. A god cannot be a living, breathing, entity writ large, it has to be a ‘being’ outside the universe otherwise a human would be a god to a dog and a dog a god to an amoeba etc.
As my readers have probably gathered, I’m not an adherent to the ‘Simulation Hypothesis’. The deeper we think about this the more we become hopelessly mired in mind boggling paradoxes. Real life is bloody complex enough without conjuring up the intellectual monstrosity of a simulated life, perhaps? This doesn’t necessary mean it is not true, though. It simply will not do to argue that as we do not like the idea it should not be the case. If we are against the hypothesis we should be prepared to get off our sweaty arses (arse) and argue cogently why this is not so. And yea, to do so we must be prepared to enter the world of obtuse metaphysical concepts. Nuff said (for now).


Saturday, 17 September 2016

Caligula

Caligula, as if in repose


Behold the man
Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, or Caligula as he is more generally known is the epitome of the popular conception of a Roman Emperor: extravagant, capricious, vicious and perhaps a little mad. And indeed popular culture has reinforced this image in such compositions as Robert Grave's novel: 'I CLAUDIUS' and the spin off television series of the same name. But what is the truth and after the interval of 2,000 years is it even possible to uncover what Caligula was really like and how accurate is the common perception of the man as the 'mad tyrant'? 

The Sources
The major problem facing the historian trying to piece together the life of Caligula and the character of the man is that only two contemporary written sources survive, the works of Seneca and Philo. Other contemporaneous histories existed but have subsequently been lost. Other surviving works were composed many years after his death and are wholly scathing with regard to the man and his life. 

The Early Years
Caligula was born into the Imperial family and his father, Germanicus, was a noted general and much loved by the Roman people, or at least this is what we gather from the written material of the time. Whilst very young, Caligula accompanied his father on his German campaigns and it is during this time that he gained his nickname, Caligula. It is said that the young Gaius (for it is he) would parade around the army camp in a little soldier's suit including military sandals which were known as caligae. And it is from this that he obtained the name Caligula, which can be translated as 'little boots'. After the death of his father, under suspicious circumstances, Caligula was entrusted into the care of various female relatives. The relationship between the ruling Emperor, Tiberius and Caligula's mother and siblings deteriorated and many of his immediate family were imprisoned and or killed. Much of the animosity was fuelled by the ambitious Praetorian commander, Sejanus, who had designs on the top job itself but first needed to remove large swathes of the imperial family. In this regard he was very successful.  
 
In 26 AD Tiberius retreated to the delightful island of Caprae and left the running of the Empire to his trusted, able and supposedly loyal agent, Sejanus. I wrote an article about this remarkable man a while ago and for context you may wish to check it out here. In 31 AD, Caligula joined Tiberius on his island retreat. This was certainly to Caligula's advantage. While in the care of the Emperor he was effectively immune from Sejanus' wiles and treachery. 

When Tiberius died (?murdered) in 37 AD, Caligula was announced joint heir to Tiberius' estates and declared Emperor. In fact Caligula shared the position with Tiberius' grandson, Gemellus. However, it was thought expedient to do away with this ill fated young man as soon as it was prudent to do so. 

Few new rulers could have had an such an auspicious start to their reign. Not only did Caligula inherit a sizeable imperial purse estimated at 2.7 billion sesterces but he was universally loved and feted by the Roman populace. All sources describe the first seven month's of Caligula's reign as blissful. Caligula initiated popular political and public reform, freeing prisoners, recalling exiles and banning treason trials which had been a hated feature of the previous Emperor's reign. It was also a time of grand extravagance and it his said that Caligula spent all of the previously acquired Imperial wealth within a year. Eight months into the reign Caligula fell seriously ill and it is after this time that the sources start to catalogue Caligula's excess and cruelty. Whether the illness changed Caligula or whether this was a pure coincidence is now lost to us. However, it is to be noted that it coincided with a severe financial crisis precipitated by Caligula's extravagant spending. Caligula needed money and he needed it fast. Treason trials were reinstated and estates confiscated, those close to him were executed. He also levied novel taxes in order to increase revenue. 

Caligula's exploits have become legendary and it is recorded that he had sexual relations with his sisters, whether this is true or not, is difficult to decide. In 39 AD, relations between Caligula and the Roman Senate began to disastrously deteriorate. And it about this time that serious murder plots became manifest though all but the last were detected and foiled. But it could only be a matter of time. There is no such thing as total security and paradoxically Roman Emperors were exquisitely vulnerable. Finally a plot consisting of senators and members of the Praetorian Guard coalesced and Caligula was stabbed to death while he was leaving the games on January the 22nd or ?24th, 41 AD. Caligula had ruled Rome and Empire for just under four years. 

Analysis
It is clear that Caligula was totally ill fitted for administering the Roman Empire. Both by temperament and preparation he was not 'fit to rule'. Although not unintelligent, he had neither the powers of concentration or insight to run the vast enterprise of Empire. The heavy yoke of government was not for him.

His experiences as a young man, especially concerning the fate of his family, could only have had a baleful influence on his emerging character. This must have left a deep scar on his psyche and perhaps made him world weary and cynical to the affairs of man. Could this in some way be responsible for his excesses? Add this to the  mix of becoming Emperor with all that it entailed. With great responsibility came great temptation. With vast resources and total control he could do exactly as whim and mood dictated. Everything and everyone was there for his bidding and pleasure. A heady mix indeed. Who could resist? Certainly not a shallow and psychologically damaged young man.  

Under the circumstance most would have failed. It could only take a man of immense character, intellect and iron self control to fulfil the role of Emperor of the time. The fact that he did so well initially is mainly down to inertia provided by the capable, but not loved, Emperor, Tiberius. Although toward the end even the able Tiberius lost control. Perhaps making Caligula his heir was a symptom of this 'loss of control' or maybe Tiberius had a cruel sense of humour after all and was indeed 'nursing a viper in the bosom of Rome'. As for the more lurid tales of Caligula's behaviour I entreat my readers to consult the ancient sources and to conclude for themselves what sort of 'monster' Caligula actually was, or is today.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Curriculum Vitae


Honesty at interview is always the best policy arse
I’m currently involved in the recruitment process for a technician in our laboratory. I was mightily surprised to see over a 100 applicants, all graduates. On initial assessment I would guess about two thirds of the applications are ‘sensible’ and relevant. The rest get binned mighty quick. Clearly applicants from Southern India and China have no chance of serious consideration, especially as the law requires Kiwi candidates to receive preferential treatment.
As for the rest…..Generally we’ll interview about eight candidates out of the residual 70 or so.
So how to choose? Candidates actually make it remarkably easy to place their CVs in the reject pile. Considering that these folk are graduates they can be remarkably uninventive and lacking in imagination. Many seem to use the same stock phrases which tells me very little about the candidate other than a compulsion for commonplace superlatives. For instance, here is a lamentable selection for perusal and delectation. And anyone utilising phrases as follows deserve to be hit repeatedly over the head with a pointy stick until blood squishes out of their ears:
excellent communication skills
goal-driven
strong work ethic
multi-tasker
personable presenter
goal-oriented
detail-oriented
team player
Change the name at the head of the document but the content remains the same- all very depressing.
Also probably not a good idea to submit a photo of yourself embedded in your CV. I once had a candidate submit a photo of herself in a wedding dress and she wasn't even married.
Once I've pared the CVs down to eight hopefuls, the interview stage can commence. I wont add any sage advice concerning interview technique here. I have already addressed this issue elsewhere.
Of course it can work both ways. Once the selection process has been completed the daunting prospect of the interview looms like a daunting looming thing (steady Flaxen). Not all candidates are nervous during the interview, but many are. And a good interview panel should make allowances for this and hopefully not make the situation more stressful for the candidate. This neatly brings me to my interview anecdote. A few years ago I was part of an interview panel. Before interviewing the candidates we colluded and parcelled out the standard interview questions between the three panel members. My colleague had the innocuous question: "Outline a situation where you had great success at work?'' What could possibly go wrong? On the day of the interview we had a particularly nervous young man struggling to articulate answers to our usual stock questions. My colleague's turn came to shine and utter the question as apportioned. Except it didn't come out exactly as planned: "Outline a situation where you had great sex at work?" After a second of shocked awe, which lasted an eternity, the panel burst out laughing. The poor interviewee looked totally stunned and unfortunately even after our heroic efforts to instil composure, the poor lad was totally destroyed and could barely mumble throughout the rest of the strained interview.
So, as my gentle readers are no doubt aware, I'm a bit of a guru with regard to this sort of thing. Anyway, check out my sage advice to my son on his forthcoming interview. I reckon the job is in the bag- what do you think?   

 

Friday, 9 September 2016

The Scientific Method


No Comment
Scientific method is a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning. The Oxford English Dictionary says that scientific method is: “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”


The scientific method is often misunderstood and frequently misrepresented sometimes by scientists who apply/belie their craft. Actually the 'Scientific Method' is fairly simple in conception. It is this 'simplicity' which understates its power in uncovering new knowledge. It is so simple that men of intellectual quality in times past considered the 'technique' too simple to provide any profound insight into the natural world. The ancient Greeks, a few notable exceptions aside, did not consider scientific induction worthy of contemplation. All useful knowledge, or so they thought, could be obtained by thinking very hard about a subject or by the dialectic. Now it is true that certain areas of knowledge are amenable to these techniques: logic and ethical considerations do well under these circumstances. But a great swathe of knowledge is denied if we rely on deductive reasoning alone.

The rise of the scientific method and thus science from the 17th century onward is responsible for the explosion in our technological advancement. Fascinatingly, Newton thought and wrote copiously about theology and alchemy but he is only remembered for his scientific and mathematical achievements; I wonder why? As an interlude, I will venture to say that all theology and the notion of faith is no way to obtain insight or knowledge about anything. While theology and religion(s) may be valid topics for the philosopher and psychologist, they play no part in science and no part in the revelation of knowledge by induction.

All science begins by an observation about the world in which we inhabit. The observer then posits an explanation, or hypothesis. This is the stage where the Ancient Greek philosopher would stop. He may have elaborated on his initial musings but he rarely tested it.

The true scientist challenges a hypothesis by experimentation. A single variable is changed and the chase begins anew. Is the subsequent result in accord with the hypothesis? If not the original hypothesis must be discarded in its entirety and a new hypothesis proposed or the original hypothesis is implored to undergo modification to fit impudent experimental results. In real science the initial experiment is repeated many times. New experiments are devised and the hypothesis is examined thoroughly and from many angles. If the hypothesis stands up to experimental rigor it may advance to the next stage and become a theory- a model for understanding a particular process. It may even enter the canon of existing knowledge (shit happens). But good science should not rest on its laurels. New and often ingenious, nay devious, experiments should be devised and so the work continues. A good theory should try and explain a phenomenon remarkably well. It does not have to be perfect. Any established explanation should be subject to change given new evidence. As an example, I'll consider Newton's laws of motions (good man, that Newton).

Actually, I've used this example elsewhere, but as it is such a good one I reckon its worth reiterating. When Newton described his theories in the mid 17th century they explained the natural world exceedingly well. All observations, of the time, pertaining to bodily motion conformed to Newton's will. Surely this was the last word on the matter? Twas destined that Newton's laws should be engrained into scientific certainly for an eternity (steady Flaxen, you are starting to wax lyrical).

Scientific theories should always be taken as fluid; open to change /challenge or frank abandonment. And indeed, by the early 20th century it became clear that the 'Newtonian Model' did not explain all aspects of stellar motion and small discrepancies had become apparent. However, so great was Newton's reputation that few researchers were willing to dispute Newtonian mechanics and most very happy to embrace observational error as a resolution to the problem. Furthermore, while Newtonian mechanics was able to describe the force of gravity, Newton freely admitted that he had no idea what that 'force' might entail.

Then along came Einstein. Einstein had the intellectual audacity to suggest that the 'Newtonian System' was not the last word. Not only did his theories of relativity explain the world better than the established system but he even had a mechanism which explained gravities' elusive force at a distance, at least to some folk's satisfaction. According to Einstein, gravity is a mere artefact of mass warping space-time- go figure. Relativity never appeals to common sense, intuition or even logic. And all this without a single practical experiment. Einstein got by with 'thought experiments'. Only a bona fide genius should subscribe to this methodology. Please don't try this at home.
 
In conclusion, science methodology not only produces the ever lasting light bulb it also gives us access to all knowledge that ain't math. If you think to the contrary I would challenge you to consider anew or at least challenge the author to comment, anew. To be honest I relish well thought out and intelligent debate. Arse.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Saint Boner


Shock Breaking News!
Tis just been announced that the incumbent Pope: Cesare Borgia ‘The Most Sanctimonious’ has been directed by Boner to confer Sainthood on his holy countenance. The Pope announced that St Boner of Calcutta (surely some mistake) has fulfilled the necessary criteria after performing two miracles of magnificent proportions. Each separate occasion was witnessed by several inebriates hanging outside Mr Khan’s Cut Price Liquor Store, Tipton. One the first occasion, Boner greeted the adoring populace with the ‘peace sign’ and immediately all war and strife in the world ceased. Subsequently, all humankind has lived in harmonious accord (except gypos}. On the second bedazzling and awe inspiring occasion, Boner paid his taxes and all the world’s inhabitants (except gypos) received bounty beyond compare. Global poverty has been banished in an instance and all who hunger, hunger no more.
St Boner, aka ‘Lord of the Universe’, is expected to ride through the streets of his native Tipton in his gold encrusted, 'Boner-Mobile', which will miraculously appear after being dropped off by space shuttle. During his sojourn amongst the ragged peasants, Boner will dispense free CDs featuring U235’s new release: ‘music to endure while waiting on the phone to interact with a real person while trying to sort out your bank details'. The CD is excepted to go Plutonium.
Smug egotistical bastard
As he bestrides the grime besmirched streets like a colossus (surely more god than man?) acolytes will chant words of wisdom from Boner’s ‘Trite Little Book of Sayings'. Here are just a few choice extracts:
     Every time I remove my sunglasses indoors, a child of swarthy complexion dies”
   "The Kantian philosophical stance that develops from a thesis and its opposed antithesis creates an amalgam of creative and empathetic synthesis" [Wise words indeed St Boner] 

Several prestigious ex-world leaders have been resurrected by Boner especially for the event. Ghandi, Churchill and Stalin will receive benediction from the hallowed one (all hail the Boner) and sing a succession of beatitudes in honour and recognition of Boner's illustrious contribution to ending poverty, war and anything remotely not nice. Indeed it is prophesied by none other than the Bonester himself that sunshine will radiate from his majestic orifice that masquerades as his arse.......... [I think you've made your point Flaxen ARSE].