The Silence of the Lobes

The hoariest of old koans [1] asks, what is the sound of one hand clapping?  This appears to have inspired an article on the Science Daily site about some research into the neurobiology of empathy, where the quoted researcherʼs name is “Coan”.

People need friends, Coan added, like "one hand needs another to clap."

Coan, koanish and corny; I approve. :-)

But:  What is the sound of one unempathic person clapping?  Or, more accurately ... what is the empathy-equivalent of the sound of one hand clapping in an unempathic person, or indeed a friendless empathic person, and are these distinct?

suicidal and transforming numbers

People keep telling me that information wants to be free.  I get the point, but I get some of the problems with the concept too.  Hereʼs another one that just occurred to me:

Alan Turing pointed out that there exist numbers which, when entered into appropriate processing devices, will rewrite themselves.  This (the number, rather than the device) is a Turing Machine.

Amongst the consequences of this is that there exists a class of numbers which will not only slightly rewrite themselves, but actually completely erase themselves (again, if entered into the appropriate device).

Not only completely erase themselves (because we normally understand erasure as writing an arbitrarily long sequence of zeroes) but pseudo-randomly (assuming no external input of genuinely random numbers is used as part of the device) overwrite until no retrieval technique can realistically recover the original Turing Machine from the storage medium.  We could of course argue about the implications of incomplete erasure or incomplete entropy (entropy as a more real form of erasure than the arguably meaningful long-zero) but itʼs not what Iʼm getting at.

I propose that there exist numbers – or other types of information representable as numbers – which far from wishing to be free, wish to cease to exist.  (For any common value of “wish”.)  Suicidal numbers, you might say.

thinking timetables

Going to have a go at my intellectual highlight for 2013 now.  (Itʼs that time of year.)

AJP Taylor famously wrote that the cause of the First World War was train timetables.  I will paraphrase the argument from memory:  The large armies of the major belligerent powers had had their manoeuvring potential worked out in great detail, and their attack plans accordingly.  A critical element was the relatively new one of train transport of troops and materials.  As trains run on tracks they require timetables, schedules.  Even a slight failure to keep to the schedule could be catastrophic to the orderly attack plans.  So once the decision to attack was made, nothing could be done to stop it (without risking defeat).

I donʼt quite recall whether Taylor also covered the point that in advance of the nominal decision to attack, various circumstances conspired to make it more or less inevitable – once you accept the thinking of the politicians of the time.  (It all looked a bit different a few short years later.)  Amongst these circumstances would be knowing the difficulty of changing plans.  (Kaiser Wilhelm apparently asked for a less potentially catastrophic set of plans but was told that it could not be done in time.)  Part of which is the difficulty of recalculating train timetables.  In other words it is the major powersʼ inflexibility, brought on by political and territorial complexity exceeding communications and computational power, which was the issue.

a disturbing shade of green

Apple, ah Apple.  Has there ever been a greater idea than power connectors that hold themselves in place with a magnet?

Well – yes, so letʼs narrow it down – has there ever been a greater idea for power connectors (for semiportable appliances) than ones which hold themselves in place with magnets?  I wonʼt actually limit this to MagSafe because MagSafe is not the original nor the only implementation of the idea.  I will say that on the whole I am greatly appreciative of Appleʼs MagSafe connectors, which are generally safer than those which could more easily pull a laptop off a surface (has happened to me) or which might be a worse trip hazard by remaining in place (have watched it happen to others).  This applies to older Apple connectors and to other brands, to other devices than computers, and to non-power connectors on computers generally.  (And especially Appleʼs locking LocalTalk connectors, for those old enough to remember them.)


evil alert

What do you call a site which, to display a page, requires so many hundreds of cookies to be set – or at least brings up so many hundreds of cookie alerts, possibly all doing the same thing – that you simply lose count and the will to ... live with the page, and so go away?


Iʼve been having a discussion around the meaning of slavery, shortly after encountering this intervew with an escapee from the Westboro Baptist Church. Iʼm not quite certain whether this kind of domineering upbringing should count as slavery. But I would think it could, unless knowing youʼre a slave from the outset is an essential characteristic – but if it were, no-one could ever have been born into the condition.


Funniest comment in weeks:

“thanks all, will put amended version into a Word doc for posterity”

Now why is that funny?  Er, because we already canʼt read five-year-old word documents?  Not exactly, I mean, quite often we canʼt read ten second old word documents.


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