Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Yup. RWC, historic I tell ya.

via Darcy from Sception, what feels like an appropriate characterization for some of the RWC hype. Not all of it mind, some of it's just plain loony.

In a slightly less imperfect world.

Mark Grisanti is a republican senator in the New York legislature. He repeats himself several times in this video (I was told when I started tutoring that you have to repeat everything at least 3 times before everybody gets it), but he does something I wish a lot more politicians would do. And it boils down to this: I've gone away, I've done the work, I was wrong, I have changed my position. I hate it when politicians get jumped all over for changing their stance on policy. Fair enough, jump all over them if it's bribery that makes them change, that's illegal, jump all over them if it's a thinly veiled attempt to grab some votes, that's generally reprehensible and shows weakness of conviction. When someone has sat down, researched something, talked to the people involved and come to the conclusion that they were wrong and their stance should be altered, they should be applauded, not condemned.

Senator Grisanti Supports NY Marriage Equality (06-24-11)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The intentional fallacy

Bennet and Royle spend a lot of their first chapter talking about origins and beginnings. Which is fair enough, you have to start somewhere. They touch briefly on the intentional fallacy. I'm rather hoping that they go into in detail somewhere further down the track. The intentional fallacy, as best as I can tell runs along the lines of it is not possible for an author to imbue their work with a "real" meaning, the reasoning being that meaning is created when a reader reads the text and thus the author has no control over the meaning that is taken. And because the meaning always emerges when the text is read, there can always be another interpretation as the work is read anew. I don't like it. I don't like it I say. When someone attempts to find the real meaning of the text, they are apparently "seeking the origin of the text in the author consciousness". An overly flowery way of saying that the reader is seeking the meaning of the text that the author put there*.

Each text that is created owes something to a number of previous works - "Literary texts are always constructed in by and within a context or tradition". The ideas that a writer uses aren't necessarily completely their own, they are are developed as part of whatever tradition they are are developed in. Bennet and Royle take this to mean that it is impossible to know the authors thoughts, since you have no way of knowing which thoughts belong to the author and which thoughts to those that influenced the author. Thus it's impossible to seek the origin of the text in the authors consciousness - it doesn't exist. According to them. I don't see it to be perfectly honest. It implies that it is possible to own an idea - something that is fine for today's intellectual property lawyers, but not for me. And besides, for the purposes of this theory it doesn't matter who owns the ideas or where they originally sprang from, what matters is that the author has put the idea within the text. The author, whether they where the first people to think the thought they are putting in a text, wishes to convey a meaning. As best I can see, this is one of the things that help create the set of possible meanings that a reader may extract from a particular reading. The reader, the environment, the media, I imagine will all help create the set of possible meanings. Notice though, that while the author may have no further part in determining the meaning of the text, their intent remains a part of it the process, they set down the first set of possible meanings that a reader may draw out.

The other part of the fallacy is that since a text can have new meanings drawn from a new reading, that there can never be a "conclusive meaning" - that is that the text means one thing and one thing only, all other interpretations are wrong.  Depending on how you define a what is a "correct" or "incorrect" meaning, there is a case to be made for saying it is not possible to know the correct meaning of a text. At first, I took this to be a different from saying that there couldn't be a correct or incorrect meaning. The more I think on this though the more I wonder if it's even a sensible question to ask. Someone would have to give the text meaning, upon reading someone would have to judge that is was the (or a) correct meaning. Correct for who? If you can't say that a person is correct, I don't how you can say that they are incorrect either. Which means that talking about a correct or incorrect meaning of a text in the way that Bennet and Royle put it, is nonsensical. Not even wrong as Pauli would say. The best a reader can do is read a text and take a meaning from it, that may be forged from a combination of author input, the environment, the media and the reader themselves.

Even if it wasn't a nonsensical question, it hasn't been shown that a text could not have a single correct meaning. Unknowable maybe, not necessarily non-existent though. To say that no text exists or can exist with a single correct meaning with all other meanings taken from it being wrong, is a universal statement. Which can't be proven and would only take a single counter example to disprove. It would require going though every text that could exist and showing that it does not have a single correct meaning. You can say to the best of our knowledge no text has a single correct meaning, if you had some (sensible) way of figuring out what was correct or not, which is entirely different. If such a thing as correctness existed, it's entirely possible that a text with a single correct meaning is currently sitting in the library.

All of which leads me to conclude that all the fuss around the intentional fallacy is a lot of puff used to dress up a simple concept. Namely: read carefully, there may be more than one meaning that can be taken from this text. Text is an imprecise method for the transmission of knowledge. The author is involved, so is the reader, both of which are affected by other texts and the world around them. Rather than talking about correctness I wonder if time would be better spent wondering whether a meaning taken from a text is sensible or not. I'm sure at some point that this will lead on to the concept that the author is "dead"** with respect to the text as soon as they finish writing it, which I disagree with, better to say they are immortal. I'm open to being swayed but that's pretty much how I see it at the moment.

*There's a fair whack of what I'm sure Oscar Wilde would call pretentious language here. It's not intensely pretentious, but there is a lot of it.
**See, this is something a I hate about English theory books. The jargon they use tends to be common words used in a manner in which a group "in the know" know, but which confuses the crap out of everyone else. At least in science, the jargon is obviously jargon and you can go look up what it means. 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Apparently, I'm a strucuralist.

A week or two ago, in a fairly magnificent discussion that lasted the better part of an hour, it became apparent (so I'm told) that I'm a structuralist. As far as literary criticism goes. Odd, I thought, I don't know what that is. Enter, our good friend wikipedia, where I find out that:
Structuralism argues that there must be a structure in every text, which explains why it is easier for experienced readers than for non-experienced readers to interpret a text. Hence, everything that is written seems to be governed by specific rules, or a "grammar of literature", that one learns in educational institutions and that are to be unmasked
It's not something I agree with entirely. I wouldn't go so far as to say that there is meaning in every text. For the non-critical theory people out there (of which I'm one) text doesn't have to be written language, it could be interpretive dance for all they care. And the specific rules being learnt in educational institutions is a bit exclusive. It may help to have a formal education, but that doesn't mean someone can't be self-educated extremely well.
I'm not hugely well versed in the field of literary criticism, so I've started off with a book, which comes highly recommended to me by a critical theorist <waves at Alex> called "Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory" by some chaps called Bennet and Royle. I'm only a few pages in and already I'm having problems. Specifically, the authoritarian nature of the writing. Things like:
"Through emphatic effects of intertextuality in particular, Eliot's poem suggests that originality, the notion of beginning as singular, definable, stable is severely problematic. To ask where or when Eliot's poem begins is to meet with a series of questions concerning the identity of the author, the text and the reader, and finally of the Western literary tradition in general"
Given that the book is an introduction to a field, the use of jargon fine. It is only polite though, to explain what the jargon refers to. Intertextuality isn't defined for until right down at the bottom of the page. General rudeness aside, I find these sentences to be authoritarian. By which I mean that they are stating the authors opinion as fact and moving on, offering no reasoning or evidence to support them. I would be quite willing to accept these sentences with the following modifications:
"Through emphatic effects of intertextuality in particular, Eliot's poem
can suggests that originality, the notion of beginning as singular,
definable, stable is severely problematic. To ask where or when Eliot's
poem begins is to meet with can create a series of questions concerning the
identity of the author, the text and the reader, and finally of the
Western literary tradition in general"
The authors might not have been intending to sound authoritarian, but without careful qualification of what they are saying, they can very much appear so. It's going to be an interesting read that looks like it might cause some frustration on my part, at the same time, it might start a few interesting conversations. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sometimes it's the little things.

There's a new fish and chip shop in Kingsland, calling themselves "Kiwiana". Which in some ways is good, because I've been wanting a fish and chip shop here for ages, we've got multiple kebab shops, thai, chinese (Canton, definitely one of the best in Auckland), japanese, burgers, mexican, but until now, no fish and chips. So I should be happy. It's not that the new guys are bad, they're not. They aren't anything special though. The fish was good, the chips were fine, but they forgot my hot dog, the pineapple fritters had no cinnamon sugar (and were in with the fish) and the thickshakes appeared to be made with some soft serve thickener stuff rather than actual ice cream. Where they went horribly wrong, is in their marketing. Look at the bottom half of their logo. "The best fish and chip experience in the world". I realise I'm being a bit of a pedant here, but fish and chips is a classic meal here, most New Zealanders have some form of misty eyed nostalgia for good fish and chips. That nostalgia, I would hazard, normally involves the food being good but greasy, it being quick, and not hideously expensive. When you make a rather large claim such as "best in the world" you're setting yourself a pretty high benchmark especially when there's large amount of nostalgia held by your customer base. In terms of actual fish and chips, not bad, I'd be tempted to give it another go if it wasn't so pricey. In terms of how they're marketing themselves, major fail. And no, I'm not going to cut them any slack for it being "cheeky" kiwi humour, seriously, a sheep in gumboots? It's ... depressing. 

I'm slowly coming to the conclusion though, that you just can't get good fish and chips in Auckland. Every time I've had good fish and chips over the past few years, it's been in Coromandel or along the coast somewhere. The fish and chips in Auckland seem to fall invariably into two camps, cheap and nasty or expensive and not worth what they're charging for it. I realise costs have gone up over the past few years, but while the good shops outside Auckland aren't playing on some false idea of kiwiness or charging huge amounts for everything because they have a shiny shop or trying to do fancy things with their fish and chips, they aren't being cheap either. They're reasonably priced, not cheap, not hideously expensive, doing good fresh food and the classics well. We seriously don't appear to have anyone of that description in Auckland. <mope>

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fried brain

I had my first day of jury service today. A day sitting still reading in a pretty featureless room with Mr Bean movies playing in the background doesn't appear to have wonders for eloquent musings from the brain region. So of course, after getting the bread out of the oven this evening, I turned to the bestest friend of brain fried people everywhere, youtube. Found, once more one of my favourite clips, thought I'd share. Enjoy.

Dara O'Briain: Science doesn't know everything

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Whimsical Neuroscientists

Gotta love them. If you sit down and think about it, Asterix always was a rather violent book. No one ever died but there was always a healthy supply of people(usually romans) getting well thumped. Now, thanks to neuroscientists from Düsseldorf, we have a much better idea of exactly how bad it was. The good news: no permanent deficit could be found in those receiving traumatic brain injuries:



The goal of the present study was to analyze the epidemiology and specific risk factors of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the Asterix illustrated comic books. Among the illustrated literature, TBI is a predominating injury pattern.


A retrospective analysis of TBI in all 34 Asterix comic books was performed by examining the initial neurological status and signs of TBI. Clinical data were correlated to information regarding the trauma mechanism, the sociocultural background of victims and offenders, and the circumstances of the traumata, to identify specific risk factors.


Seven hundred and four TBIs were identified. The majority of persons involved were adult and male. The major cause of trauma was assault (98.8%). Traumata were classified to be severe in over 50% (GCS 3-8). Different neurological deficits and signs of basal skull fractures were identified. Although over half of head-injury victims had a severe initial impairment of consciousness, no case of death or permanent neurological deficit was found. The largest group of head-injured characters was constituted by Romans (63.9%), while Gauls caused nearly 90% of the TBIs. A helmet had been worn by 70.5% of victims but had been lost in the vast majority of cases (87.7%). In 83% of cases, TBIs were caused under the influence of a doping agent called "the magic potion".


Although over half of patients had an initially severe impairment of
consciousness after TBI, no permanent deficit could be found. Roman
nationality, hypoglossal paresis, lost helmet, and ingestion of the magic potion were significantly correlated with severe initial impairment of consciousness (p ≤ 0.05).

Link to the actual study. <grin>

Monday, June 13, 2011

Open Science

A friend forward me this a few days ago. It's a brief article on the Guardian website discussing open science. The general theme, I've been aware for some time now. A decent chunk of the open science desiderata  has it as an alternative to the publish or die model of science that we have now, where a lot of a scientists career is influenced by how many papers they have published and in which journals. There is some merit to the current system, alongside significant flaws. The new open model that is being proposed is idealistic, I'm just not sure how it would work down the road, career wise. Especially given the amount research that is done these days in collaboration with business, which brings the whole intellectual property question into play (though don't get me wrong, I think our conception of intellectual property and it's management is seriously flawed as well). For all that it's idealistic, it's something I'd like to give have a crack at. Ideally, I'd like to be starting a PhD soon, both of the projects that I'm keen to have a crack at involve people who will be concerned about the intellectual property angle, so I'm not sure how that would go.

Which is not to say that the system works, I've seen a critique involving the mathematician Timothy Gowers, that is used as an example in the book. It's entirely possible that the model worked in that instance because Gowers was already renowned and was talking to a small, very specialised community. Thus possibly making it impractical if you're starting out in the scientific community as I will be, a complete unknown.  Worth a shot though.

Friday, June 10, 2011


It can quite often be entertaining when the methods and reasoning of the alternative medicine types is extend, quite accurately into another industry. Saaaaay... aviation. Seriously, why does alternative medicine not sound as nutty as that to so many people?

Quote of the day.

via Robin and Josie's utter shambles:
"You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant."

Harlan Ellison

I don't know much about Ellison, though looking at his wikipedia page, I feel I probably should know more. I like the quote though.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

One more for the reading list.

Maybe. Or at least, it's going to come quite a way down the list. I've heard it said, usually in reference to physicists, that new theories aren't don't really displace old ones until the older generation of physicists retire and the next generation take over. I don't see it personally. Certainly not in the sciences outside physics. I'm beginning to wonder however, if it's a maxim that should be applied to economists and business leaders. You get the odd one, like this Ray Anderson chap, who as a CEO of a company decided to make his company green/sustainable. In terms of profitability, it paid off. I'll admit that this is only one example, but the impression I get from business leaders who are opposing moves that will force their companies to move to sustainable practices is one of doom and gloom. Say, for example our emissions trading scheme, rather than figuring out ways of doing things better and having the cost of their product reflect it's true cost (in materials, labour and to the environment - yes, I'm one of those who regard the environment as a piece of the infrastructure that underlies all economies), they would bemoan their fate and insist that being forced to find better ways to do things is in fact a death knell for their companies and thus for the economy. I'm sorry, but damaging the environment is a cost and if the final price of the product doesn't reflect that then the company is essentially getting a subsidy.

Economists as well. Especially the neocon ones. It's been shown time and time again that money does not trickle down to the poor when you cut taxes to the rich. I would have thought it was obvious that the whole unregulated free market is a disaster waiting to happen, again. The rational self interested consumer does not exist, the model is flawed. Yet these things are continually pushed. Do we have to wait for this generation of economists to die out and be replaced by ones who are developing models that actually reflect reality rather than project the reality that the previous generation would like to exist?

Understanding misunderstanding

The number of open browser tabs I have, slowing my old, dodgy computer, is about to force me to go on a writing spree. First off, this piece from ars Technica. There are numerous ways that people fool themselves. Probably the most common ones that I see are confirmation bias blind acceptance of something that sounds authoritative. This piece shows a couple of other ways, the first in the patterns of how we think. Assuming that that the chance of picking a sequence is equal to the chance of picking a random sequence when there is a pattern to the way people think, it's illustrated nicely with people picking random sequences of heads and tails - very few people will pick HHHHT, which as a random sequence has as much chance as any other of occurring. I must admit, I'm currently trying to figure out how that is relevant to people picking their weekly lotto numbers.

The second method of misunderstanding is more a method of being fooled. It discusses how people can be primed to give certain answers, dependant on how questions are formed. Which is basically leading the crowd. Anyone who understands how psychics go about duping their punters will have seen a variation of this before. Here it's presented in a more analytical fashion, but as far as I can see, it's of a similar bent. The whole thing is worth reading though, at least for those of us who are interested in how we work.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Politics 101

I find it worrisome that a decent chunk of the population share a misguided notion of what a mandate is. A political mandate is the delivery of an individuals power into the hands of a representative. With MMP, there are two votes. Firstly for your local representative, whichever candidate gets the largest mandate takes the seat. The second vote is for a party. If a party has a majority of the votes, it has teh largest mandate and forms a government. If it has the most votes of any single parties but not a majority of the votes, it does not control a sufficiently large mandate to form a government. We, as voters deliver our power to our representatives, in this case, parties. If some of those parties think they can work together and together control a majority of the electorates loyalty, then as a group they have a mandate, even if none of them won the most votes. Winning the most votes is not a victory in any sense of the word unless you control a majority of the electorates loyalty as well. The act of voting delivers power to representatives who then use their judgement and go on to form an alliance. If you can form an alliance that controls more than 50% of the electorates votes, that alliance has a mandate to govern.

Large numbers of people don't seem to get this. The assertion that the most votes gives a party a mandate to govern can pretty much be guaranteed to come up in any discussion of MMP , usually, though not always from members or supporters of the party likely to get the most votes but not beable to control a majority of the mandate. Sometimes though it comes from people who are just pissed off. Mike Lee for instance states that Steven Joyce has no mandate to act as transport minister. As much as I like Joyce, this is just bollocks. At the last election, The National party was able form an alliance to control a majority of the votes. Those that voted for National, delivered their power, their mandate to the National party. Steven Joyce, as a representative of the National party has control of and executes that mandate legitimately. Seriously, it's not that hard a concept to grasp and a politician like Lee should be sufficiently well versed in these things that it's not something he should be saying, even off the cuff.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Refusing to see the case for rail.

I try to generous in my estimation of politicians. Seriously, I do try. I don't assume they're all evil bastards out to pillage the world. Most of the time I can get by with assuming that they've got their own set of blinkers on and are set in their ways, but that they are not consciously out to destroy everything. Sometimes though you have to wonder. In this case, it's not so much that they are destroying things in what they are doing or not doing, it's that they refuse to see the problems. Auckland needs public transport. If you build more roads, people buy cars and the roads stay clogged. If you build public transport systems, more people get on the buses and the trains, then you add more buses and trains and everything keeps moving. On top of that, petrol prices are rising, they're not going to go down much any time in the next decade or so, so more people are hopping on the trains. Yet we have a minister of transport who can't see sufficient growth in rail traffic to warrant spending money on a decent rail system in our biggest city. If anything, you'd think they'd want more people on public transport to keep the roads clearer for more commercial traffic, but no, they'd rather spend a couple of billion building a motorway on a piece of highway that needs a little bit of work than on rail. Seriously, when even the AA are supporting the construction of new rail, you'd think the message would begin to get through.

You have to begin to think that some of our politicians are either irrationally attached to their view of what the world should be or that they are actually out to screw things up as best they may. Sigh.

Personal experience vs collected experience.

This post by Jen at Blag Hag is a year old, but worth reading. It's a good bash at the whole "I got spanked as a kid and I'm fine so it should be allowed" form of argument. It's an annoying argument that was bandied around quite a lot last year when we were having the referendum on the repeal of section 59 a couple of years ago. When you are looking at populations there are always outliers. Without the context that is provided by collecting data from significant portions of the population, a single personal experience is worthless in helping us figure out what is worth doing as a society and what is not.