Software Musings

Archive for the ‘General’ Category

I’m puzzled. I’ve just had a telephone call purporting to come from the Conservative Party of Canada. I was asked whether I would vote for Mr Harper (the current leader of the Conservative Party and colleague of Bruce Carson who is currently under investigation by the RCMP for influence peddling) as Prime Minister.

Presumably, this was in the event that an election were to be called.

I made it clear that no force in heaven or earth would make me vote for someone who has so mislead Canadians. Mr Harper, fearing an election, brought the word “prorogation” onto everyone’s lips. He issued a handbook to new MPs to tell them how to make parliament dysfunctional (as though it wasn’t already). I could go on, and on, but won’t.

What interested me most was the idea that the Conservative Party believes that ordinary voters vote for the Prime Minister. That’s an interesting idea but not one in the Canadian democratic system.


Working Back

Posted on: 02/01/2011

I have always known that mathematics teaching in high schools is generally disastrous. I suspect that almost all non-specialists and even a majority of specialists could leave a high-school mathematics course with the idea that most mathematicians are dead, those who are alive spend their time doing arithmetic of enormous complexity and that mathematics was complete sometime around the time of Pythagoras (say about 1850). When one points out that most mathematicians who have ever lived are still alive, that one can do a mathematics degree without meeting a number other than 0 and 1 and that there are important mathematical problems that have remained unsolved since the 19th century there is a feeling of incredulity. And, I hope, a feeling of having been cheated by the school system.

Well, over the past few months I’ve had a similar road to Damascus experience with history and feel a great sense of having been cheated. I’ve recently read two sources:

  1. “Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Cosmology” by Charles H Kahn (ISBN 978-0-87220-255-9)
  2. “The Official History of Heraclius’ Persian Campaigns” by James Howard-Johnston (included in his book “East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity”, ISBN 978-0-8607-8992-5)

The former I bought myself, the latter was recommended by Greg Fisher when I had lunch with him at the beginning of December. I await his book on the Sasanians with interest.

What the two books have in common is that they both deduce the existence and contents of documents that have been lost. As Kahn says: “Since the written work of Anaximander is known to us only by a single brief citation in a late author for whom the original was already lost, it may well seem an act of folly to undertake a detailed study of his thought”. But by a process somewhat akin to ded reckoning (“ded” for “deduced” is a term used by pilots) Kahn shews how the analysis of the output of later authors presupposes a common origin for much of the cosmological thought and traces that origin back to Anaximander. A fascinating intellectual journey built on a remarkable knowledge of the later literature.

Howard-Johnston makes a similar journey to deduce the existence of a lost prose/poem created by George of Pisidia from Heraclius’ official dispatches from the battlefield back to the citizens of Constantinople. His deductions start from Theophanes’ Chronographia and work backwards, demonstrating the links in the chain and holding them up for the reader to test their strength, to George of Pisidia. Another intellectual tour de force.

I had a good history teacher at school. All teachers were expected to read some inspirational text in our morning assemblies and I still remember his (he was not invited to do so again and was eventually sacked for his behaviour with a 6th form girl at the end-of-term dance and we had a collection to buy him a crate of beer): “Cromwell said, ‘put your trust in God; but mind to keep your powder dry'”. He was good (I remember his graphic account of what the crowd did with the bodies of Mussolini and his mistress) but not good enough to tell me that history was also the type of deduction that Kahn and Howard-Johnston were doing.

And if we’re misled about mathematics and history, what about the other subjects? Perhaps even biology isn’t totally mind-numbingly boring. Although that seems unlikely.

Text Appeal

Posted on: 21/07/2010

Once again life and literature have co-incided.

Let’s start with life.

A couple of evenings ago, in the gloaming, I was walking through the Bordeleau Park near our house (I pronounce this as “Bordello” but this is apparently not correct). I came across two young people sitting very close together on a bench. As I approached I realised that the girl was pretty and there was a boy sitting by her. Each was ignoring the other and busily typing on some form of mobile device: presumably sending text messages to each other. This is not what we used to get up to on park benches when I was a boy but one must, I assume, keep up with changing times.

And now literature.

Earlier this year I paid a flying visit to the UK and, on my way back through Heathrow, I bought a copy of Private Eye: the issue for 5th-18th March 2010. This turned up in a pile of paper yesterday and I was thumbing through it and came across a joke on page 4. It shews a man and woman in bed together, each holding a portable (and unattached) device and busily typing text messages.

This week has seen two significant court cases resolved in a manner which give me increased confidence in the UK’s and the USA’s legal systems (Canada, where I live, works on the principle that if the Prime Minister thinks that a person is a terrorist then that person has to be locked up).

On a more positive note Simon Singh MBE has been cleared in London of libelling the British Chiropractic Association in saying that there was no shred of evidence that their treatments could help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying. As you will know, there have been online petitions and pressure on the UK government to make the UK’s libel laws more reasonable and thereby cut down on libel tourism to the UK.

The second positive result came from Utah where a jury of people with no knowledge of the travails between SCO, IBM and Novell (with counterpoint from Microsoft and others) regarding UNIX and Linux sat down to determine whether SCO’s predecessor (Santa Cruz) did, or did not, get the UNIX copyrights from Novell back in 1995. I am frankly amazed that 12 people, particularly 12 people from Utah where SCO is based, who knew nothing of the argument could be found for the jury but apparently they could. Of course, Groklaw has changed the way in which technological cases can be analysed by the community, by the people who actually know. SCO felt, however, and I tended to agree, that if they could get the case (already lost elsewhere) in front of a non-technologically adept bunch of Utahians in a jury box then they could win. But they lost. As Novell said:

“Novell is very pleased with the jury’s decision confirming Novell’s ownership of the Unix copyrights, which SCO had asserted to own in its attack on Linux,” a Novell spokesperson said. “Novell remains committed to promoting Linux, including by defending Linux on the intellectual property front.”

So this has been a good week in the courts. At least in the UK and USA. Perhaps next week Mohamed Harkat will be exonerated.

I walked out of a cafe about half an hour ago after lunch, climbed into my car and turned on the radio. On CBC radio 2 the opera from the New York Metropolitan Opera House is broadcast on Saturday afternoons and on radio 1 a programme entitled “Definitely Not The Opera” runs in parallel. My radio was tuned to radio 1 and I was pitched into the middle of an interview with an artist from Winnipeg.

He said that he had been thinking about frozen rivers (it’s that time of the year when I begin to wonder whether there is any other sort but the dynamiting of the Rideau River outside our house did begin today—the harbinger of Spring) and how the ice was just frozen water. The river had effectively been stopped (frozen?) in time. He said that books contained ideas frozen in time and he had therefore constructed a work of art combining the two. I missed the part of the interview where the art work was described but it presumably included books on the Assiniboine River.

That statement about books containing ideas frozen in time jarred with me. Many, many years ago I read a book (by Anthony Hopkins?) on music that described Sonata Form. He likened the form to walking through a house that you don’t know but are thinking of buying. You enter the hall and get a first impression. You then tour the rest of the house and end up back in the hall. You see the hall again (the recapitulation) but because you now know the rest of the house you see it in a different way. In a sonata you hear the theme again during the recapitulation but, because of the journey you’ve made in the meantime, it means more to you: the notes are the same (more-or-less) but the context is different.

Surely books are the same: their ideas are not frozen because ideas have to be interpreted. At the moment I’m rereading Gerald Priestland’s autobiography, “Something Understood” which I last read at least 15 years ago and Dimitri Gutas’ “Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Abbasid Society” which I last read about 6 months ago.

In each case, the ideas I read during this recapitulation are new, not because the words have changed, but because I have been through other rooms and can now see these books in a new light. The words are the same but the context is different.

And it’s not just the ideas that the books contain. Sometimes I pick up a book from my shelves and find the unmistakable signs that, at some time in the past, I dropped it in the bath (I spend hours lying in the bath reading and sometimes books suffer). That too is part of the context that I bring to the next reading.

At the risk of being accused (by one particular colleague whom I won’t name) of being a relativist, the idea that books are ideas frozen in time really seems indefensible.

I was thinking about linguistic inertia—the way in which the world moves on and the language doesn’t. My grandson today was shewing me his “steam roller” which was clearly actually a “diesel roller”. And I flew this afternoon in the “cockpit” of my aircraft. I suspect that very few of us have ever been to a cock fight and even those who have would not have recognised the term’s path, through maritime terminology, to an aircraft.

Anyway, the word that was interesting me was “newspaper”. There is a local newspaper in Ottawa called the Ottawa Citizen and it can be found at We were rung the other day by someone offering to print the web pages and deliver the resulting paper copy to our door each day, a sort of printed Kindle I suppose. I thought that this was a quaint idea—in principle one could, I suppose, offer to print almost any web pages and deliver them on paper. I think that the person offering the service was still tied up with the “paper” part of “newspaper”.

Imagine my surprise then, on coming home from work last week to find two large volumes sitting on the door step. These contained paper printouts of telephone numbers and had been distributed by a company called Bell. Actually, even had I felt it useful to have a list of people’s contact numbers on paper, this one wouldn’t have been the one I needed. It contained no one’s cellular telephone number and no one’s Skype user name. In fact, as far as I could see, it contained only telephone landline numbers, perhaps the least useful contact information for people. What was really strange was that it associated the landline number with the name of a person as though it were a cellular telephone number or Skype name. Telephone landlines, of course, are not associated with people, rather with houses or offices. But I should not be critical, it was a nice thought. Someone at Bell, obviously confused by the linguistic inertia in the phrase “Telephone Book”, felt that it would be useful to print out this list as a “book” and deliver it to me personally. I’m sure that the cellular telephone numbers and Skype identities will appear in the next issue.

Lying abed this morning I finished reading Ivar Ekeland’s book “The Best of All Possible Worlds: Mathematics and Destiny” and, while brushing my teeth, alighted on Leah Price’s review of William Sherman’s book “Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England” in the 9th October 2008 edition of the London Review of Books.

I have written before about sometimes being present at the crossroads of the universe when two ideas arrive from different directions, coalesce and drive off together up the hill. Let me try to explain my surprise this time.

Ekeland’s book is really two books. Both are good and well worth reading and, by buying “The Best of All Possible Worlds” (C$14.00 when I bought my copy just before Christmas) you get the two bound into one volume. The first book is a fascinating exploration of the least-action principle from Pierre Louis Maupertuis, a chap of whom I had never heard but who was, apparently, the origin of Voltaire’s Doctor Pangloss, to Poincaré. This book requires no mathematical maturity from the reader and the couple of theorems needed for the argument (including a geometric argument for the existence of a second (non-maximal) diameter of a convex closed curve) are relegated to appendices. It also raises the concept of playing billiards on non-rectangular tables. I have always thought billiards and snooker fairly boring to play and extremely boring to watch but the idea of having different (but convex) table shapes would certainly make them more interesting. Imagine snooker competitions where the competitors didn’t know the (irregular but convex) shape of the table until the start of the match.

Ekeland’s second book deals with human behaviour. He writes in the final chapter “There is a general feeling that science has given us longer and better lives, but has not taught us how to live them.” The last two or three chapters should be compulsory reading for all politicians and university administrators.

Science seems to raise more questions than it provides answers, but human beings are in quest of certainties, and if science will not provide them, then others will—religions and ideologies. And indeed, the first half of the last century was the era of ideologies, which ended with the bloody clash of fascism and communism, while the second half has seen religions emerge as the main actors, and may yet lead us to another conflagration between the Abrahamic creeds…

I find a confusion in this part of the book between science and technology (I don’t, for example, think that there was much science beyond Newton’s Laws of Motion involved in getting men to the moon) but this does not detract from Ekeland’s cri de coeur for sanity and rationality in our thinking. We are in the classical games theory dilemma of needing everyone to act rationally for the good of all. Ekeland believes that the application of mathematics and logic to human and well as scientific problems could, indeed, result in the “best of all possible worlds” in the sense that Voltaire mocked.

The two parts of Ekeland’s book are bound together by that phrase and play on the word “best”: in the first part in its scientific sense selecting our universe from all of those available in the multiverse and in the second part in its societal sense. This is, of course, the very confusion between what “Dr Pangloss” was really saying and what Voltaire was (deliberately?) confusing.

So, where does the article from the London Review of Books come in? The book being reviewed deals with the things that people wrote in the margins of books. Apparently 17th century marginalia now adds to, rather than detracts from, the value of old books. However, the part that interested me was

Even after the invention of printing, aids like tables of contents and indexes were added by hand by individuals. Readers would interleave blank pages, rearrange sections, and could even combine sections from different volumes. The printed page was seen as merely a starting place…

If this was so in the 16th century, how much more should it be the case now. With more and more books becoming available in soft copy (pdf) and with really useful tools like pdftk capable of splitting and recombining pdf files in all sorts of ways (as it says in the pdftk documentation “If PDF is electronic paper, then pdftk is an electronic staple-remover, hole-punch, binder, secret-decoder-ring and X-Ray-glasses”), we are free to build precisely the books we need. If I had a soft copy of Ekeland’s book, I could split it into two and combine the first part with some sections from Voltaire’s Candide (perhaps the world’s most tedious book in its entirety but OK in chunks) and thereby build a new, personalised book. I could then take the second part of Ekeland’s book and combine it, perhaps, with some of Grayling’s essays to build another new book personalised for me.

As an author, I would actually feel quite comfortable about people doing this with my books. I wonder about other authors.

July 2018
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The author of this blog used to be an employee of Nortel. Even when he worked for Nortel the views expressed in the blog did not represent the views of Nortel. Now that he has left, the chances are even smaller that his views match those of Nortel.