Observing the difficulties of speech recognition could not be more fun.
From the introduction:
Policemen and Magicians
A visiting professor of Anguish, D
Observing the difficulties of speech recognition could not be more fun.
From the introduction:
Policemen and Magicians
A visiting professor of Anguish, Dr. ________,* who, while learning to understand spoken English, was continually bewildered and embarrassed by the similarity of such expressions as boys and girls and poisoned gulls, used to exclaim:
*This isn't his real name, nor is it intended to be the name of any other Anguish Languish professor, living or dead.
"Gracious! What a lot of words sound like each other! If it wasn't [sic] for the different situations in which we hear 'em, we'd have a terrible time saying which was which."
Of course, these may not have been the professor's exact words, because he often did his exclaiming in Anguish rather than in English. In that case he would say:
"Crashes! Water larders warts sunned lack itch udder! Effervescent further delerent saturations an witch way harem, wade heifer haliver tam sang witch worse witch."
Dr. ________ was right, both in English and Anguish. Although other factors than the pronunciation of words affect our ability to understand them, the situation in which the words are uttered is of prime importance. You can easily prove this, right in the privacy of your own kitchen, by asking a friend to help you wash up a dozen cops and sorcerers. Ten to one, she'll think you said a dozen cups and saucers, and be genuinely surprised if you put her to work cleaning up even one police officer, let alone all the others, and the magicians, too.
If you think that she misunderstands merely because the two phrases sound somewhat alike and not because of the situation, read what SPAL's Committee on Housewives has to say:
"Presented with a dishes-piled-in-sink situation, several hundred well-adjusted housewives thought that cops and sorcerers referred to dishes, but seldom did normal subjects, interviewed under the same conditions, make the opposite mistake. When they were asked to help us wash cups and saucers, some women consented, some made stupid excuses, and some told us bluntly to go wash them ourselves, but practically no one thought that we were talking about policemen and magicians."
It wasn’t actually the pope calling, it was one of his vatican underlings when my friend Kathryn picked up the phone.
‘Are you a Catholic?’
‘It wasn’t actually the pope calling, it was one of his vatican underlings when my friend Kathryn picked up the phone.
‘Are you a Catholic?’
‘Would you do your work for a Catholic?’
‘I do my work for anyone who needs it.’
‘What is the cost?’
‘I do not charge’
‘The pope needs a board for communicating. It needs to be in Latin, Polish and Italian.’
Kathyrn’s fame is world-wide if you are in the know. When the last pope was dying, he needed one of her boards to communicate. It is a combination of algebraic notation and Bliss symbols. She gave this example to me that she’d recently put together. It was for an English-speaking surgeon working in an operating theatre in Indonesia. Along the top is the local alphabet and along the side the local numbers for 1-10. This much the surgeon learns. In each square, referenced algebraic style is his word for something and then the Bliss symbol. Underneath is the local word for it. The Bliss symbol is most necessary in the case of users who have little or no literacy. The surgeon can also point, if necessary.
I’ve been finding out a little about speech recognition and translation between languages computer-style lately. It was eye-opening to see this technologically primitive method. According to Kathryn what she does is in demand because it is most reliable, both in terms of understanding between languages without hiccups and in terms of being technology free. It isn’t going to break down. It isn’t going to run out of power. In the field – and she gave the example of disaster situations – it is looked to because it works. I’m guessing also that these her boards can be developed very quickly for specific situations. I don’t know when software will be able to do that. Maybe it will transpire that however brilliantly software assisted speech recognition ends up developing, nonetheless at the level of disaster/emergency something like Kathryn’s system of Bliss symbols will always be used. Ie maybe the two methods will complement each other.
Bliss would be thrilled that his work was being recognised and utilised in such a way. When it was finally picked up in the early 1970s in Canada it was for the use of children to communicate who otherwise had difficulties. A laudable application, but Bliss had in mind something grandiose. He wanted a language of symbols to break down linguisitic barriers throughout the world and with that the negative cultural aspects of language. Growing up prior to WWII, being imprisoned in camps for a while, he associated language with evil intent in a way sociologists would deny these days, but which drove his ideas.
Another thing drove him. When he was young his father took him to a lecture given by a group of North Pole explorers. He was utterly taken by their fearless dedication to do this irrespective of danger to themselves. It gave him the desire to want to do great things, to give to the world. Like so many European migrants who came to Australia with wonderful gifts (he was a chemical engineer) to give in the post WWII period, he found he had to take on a manual factory line job. But perhaps it gave him the intellectual freedom to dedicate himself to the huge task he’d set himself to help mankind. Reading this reminded me of some of the scientists Smolen looks at in The Trouble with Physics, the ones who do the important big work are often not the ones in academia, who tend to spend a remarkably small amount of time doing research – ie thinking – but the ones who support themselves, again in menial labour, that frees their brains to do the important thinking that leads to major scientific breakthroughs.
An amazing man, I’m wondering now about visiting the NLA to look at his papers. I expect some fascinating tales are buried therein. ...more
Mr Pinker, vacuous decrier of this book. I wonder if you might listen in on the salutary tale of what happened to my brain some years ago and the geneMr Pinker, vacuous decrier of this book. I wonder if you might listen in on the salutary tale of what happened to my brain some years ago and the general relevance of this tale to the Internet society in which we now live....the story, the moral, the solution are here:
from Randall Munroe. Mouseover says: 'This is the reference implementation of the self-referential joke.'
I know, I know, I kno
from Randall Munroe. Mouseover says: 'This is the reference implementation of the self-referential joke.'
I know, I know, I know. I'm just kidding myself. I'm as likely to read this as a book on string theory. (Please don't. Please don't tell me I have read a book on string theory, I'm trying to forget the whole sordid story.) But. I hope you like this.
A friend of mine, Professor John Spiers, http://www.debretts.com/people/biogra... established The Harvester Press in the 1970s. He did it on a wing and a prayer, he was a young teaching academic who couldn't find in print the old literary books he wanted to use as texts and so he set about publishing them. He was probably as surprised as anybody when the idea quickly became viable. He put together a list of books, sold them as a subscription to libraries and away he went. He wasn't an academic any more, he was a proper publisher with a strong reputation for intellectually high end output.
At some point he got sent a completely insane looking ms, ridiculously long, bits of paper stuck on bits of paper, all these pictures which hadn't any copyright permission, and as for the title...well, who was going to buy a book called that....he sent it back with a polite letter.
Some years later he was in NY lunching with the boss of Basic Books, a US academic publisher. He wanted to publish this strange ms. he'd been given. As he was describing it, John interrupted with 'Godel, Escher, Bach I presume?' Evidently Hofstadter had gotten lucky and had on loan a very early word processor. The whole thing was no longer the shambles it once was. Basic Books was keen.
John got talked into taking some thousands of copies. This turned out well for him, but. What he had lost. Ouch. Godel, Escher, Bach in English and in translation would have made him many millions. I won't say he cried about it, but he did ask for a discount on the books he was buying. After such a sad tale it was impossible to say no. ...more
Being a knitter, I can’t say anything positive about this book, but in the interests of fairness, I will quote the eminent mathematician William Thurston, who said of it:
“These models have a fascination far beyond their visual appearance. As illustrated in the book, there is actually negative curvature and hyperbolic geometry all around us, but people generally see it without seeing it. You will develop an entirely new understanding by actually following the simple instructions and crocheting! The models are deceptively interesting. Perhaps you will come up with your own variations and ideas. In any case, I hope this book gives you pause for thought and changes your way of thinking about mathematics.”
I’m sure it should, William, I’m sure it should, but. ...more
What I know about AI and computer science can be summed up like this: wash your hands thoroughly after handling fresh chilli.
But I do know quite a bitWhat I know about AI and computer science can be summed up like this: wash your hands thoroughly after handling fresh chilli.
But I do know quite a bit about bridge and from that perspective I find this book a remarkable achievement. I became involved with a little group last year thinking we would develop a project for creating a bridge program that can talk in a human-like way about bridge. Frank hasn’t exactly done that. He has, however, got his program to describe non-verbally what it does in a human-like way. From a bridge view point this book is fascinating. I can also see from the dipping into it I’ve so far undertaken, that it accessible even for a person, like me, who knows just less than Manuel.
To make a bridge program that plays at a high level and can talk about it in a human-like way is a challenge far greater than that initiated in the 1940s to create an artificially intelligent chess program. That Frank’s work is so interesting so long after he first undertook it in the early-mid nineties underlies the truth of this.
This book is based on his PhD which won best disseration of the year in the UK when it came out. I can see why.
I happened to meet the author a few weeks ago and as a consequence, I have a freebie to offer you. Anybody who is interested in the area and would like a copy of the book, please send me your name and shipping address. It will be sent to you free of charge. ...more
I wrote this ages ago, I’m so very sorry for any scientists or others it may fail to amuse. I had lots of fun writing it. The book is worthy of anotheI wrote this ages ago, I’m so very sorry for any scientists or others it may fail to amuse. I had lots of fun writing it. The book is worthy of another sort of review altogether, and if I’d been in another sort of mood altogether, I dare say that’s what would have come out.
A review written in the straightforward three dimensions. The dimensions God intended us to have.
Update: I'm starting to wonder if the whole language thing is overrated. I'm in a French-speaking country without a word of French to my name and it dUpdate: I'm starting to wonder if the whole language thing is overrated. I'm in a French-speaking country without a word of French to my name and it doesn't seem to matter that much. I find the Swiss are pretty much like the French. They may hate Englishmen. They may hate that thing where Englishmen think if they speak English slowly and loudly nobody in the world won't understand them.
And even if you ask them sweetly 'do you speak English?' they reply back 'non' which, to be honest, I find just a little suspicious as an answer...
But if you say 'Bonjour' in a particular way, and now I'm referring to how I say it, they will absolutely insist that you speak not another word of their language, the English will flow from their lips and honestly. Why on earth was I ever thinking of learning French?
Oh yes. Hmmm. I forgot. To read fabulous French writers in the original. Hmmm. Yes. Excusez-moi.
I must confess that I started this book at chapter eight, magical memory aid, only to discover it was about making up stories to remember words. Instantly my back is up as I recall a childhood of people trying to make you remember things by having to remember other things. This book gives the bizarre example of setting about a method to recall the letters of the music staff. Like it doesn’t go in alphabetical order? Honestly. I’m shaking my head. Aren’t words pictures and patterns? I still don’t in the least understand why they aren’t sufficient.
On the other hand, walking back from coffee today, I asked the person I was with if he’d ever used this practice and he said he’d been raised on it by teachers. And he gave me an example, which I’m ashamed to say has stuck in my head every since and that’s been 7 hours.
Roy G Biv
Don’t tell me. I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t know who this is. Or didn’t until earlier today. And now after many hours of this and that, I still know who he is. And I’m pretty sure that if I were to have sex tonight, which I mention purely in a theoretical kind of way, it’s Roy who would be occupying my thought during it. He’s probably there for life. I’ll end my days with dementia and everybody around me will wonder about me and Roy G Biv.
Can I make myself use this technique? I just don’t know.
There are other things that bother me. He wants you to fill up all those empty times in your day, wasted now, with language learning. Standing in a queue, taking the escalator. But don’t we all already use that time?
The author of this book is certainly a wanker, but it might be that this is just because he needs to fill up the book with something. It could be a list which was a few pages long. But there is padding like you wouldn’t believe. A blow by blow account of every language he’s ever learned. He even gives a detailed account of when he decided not to learn languages. And yet, fairly early on he says something which is just SO true that I have to put that in italics as well. SO true.
He is discussing at which point you might say you have learned a language:
My standards are less exacting. I’ll confess to ‘speaking a language’ if, after engaging in deep conversation a charming woman from a country whose language I’m studying, I have difficulty the next morning recalling which language it was we were speaking.
This strikes me as exactly correct. It is the point where you are no longer conscious of the language you are speaking.
I guess I like to think that in a sense even people like me who are linguistically bereft nonetheless in a certain sense have learnt a bunch of languages in their lives. For me I’d include the language of conventional economics, that of Marxist economics, music, knitting, bridge….the wonderful language of cooking. When you first cook there are all these expressions, merely words which one has used a million times before which suddenly seem completely mysterious and a source of great consternation. ‘A splash’, ‘a handful’ ‘turn up’ ‘turn down’ ‘put some’ Then at some point you find that you think in these words without realising that you are. The language and therefore the concepts are now yours.
Then again just along a bit and he comes out with another profound concept:
You don’t have to know grammar to obey grammar. If you obey grammar from the outset, when you turn around later and learn why you should say things the way you’re already saying them, each grammatical rule will then become not an instrument of abstract torture disconnected from anything you’ve experienced but rather an old friend who now wants you to have his home address and private phone number.
When the grammatical rule comes first, followed by its pitiful two or three examples in the textbook, it seems to the student like an artificially confected bit of perversity rolled down upon his head like a boulder.
When the grammatical rule comes after you’ve got some of the language in you, it becomes a gift flashlight that makes you smile and say, ‘Now I understood why they say it that way!’
So, you are right now and forevermore warned not to bridle or to question, ‘Why is the word for ‘go’ in this French sentence vais and in the very next sentence aller?’ Simply embrace the faith that both sentences are correct and learn them….
The more shaken you become by grammatical storms, the more tightly you must hug the faith. I vow it will all become clear.
How often have I given the same advice to bridge students. Do it as an act of faith, trust me, and eventually you will understand. This really works. After a while, instead of doing the things I’ve set down as rules ‘just because’, it becomes clear why. But why couldn’t possibly come first. Maybe this is because language rules, like good bridge plays, aren’t necessarily demonstrable as true. I’m not sure that one needs to follow chess advice in the same blind way, though I rather think if I’d done more of that as a kid I would be a better player.
If ever there was a person whose role in life is to test this book it’s me. I have a talent for not speaking languages which might be envied if there was in fact any point to the knack. There are a couple of aspects to the whole business that don’t scare me the way they scare other people. This thing about getting too old to learn a language. I was always a slow learner, so I shan’t even notice that I’m lagging. And I don’t know a thing about grammar so it isn’t going to upset me that it’s done differently in another language. I’ll be blissfully unaware of the offending practices.
It’s going to be French. This is what a bad person I am. A few years ago I taught myself to speak English with a French accent because the thing I especially like about French is the sound and I realised that all you have to do to sound French while speaking English is to put the stress on the opposite syllable from the one we do in English. A generalisation, no doubt, but pretty much true. For a while I thought the easiest way to do this was to use only two syllable words as long words can get a bit confusing, but I didn’t persevere with this theory. Suddenly I’m full of enthusiasm for the idea that I might as well learn the darn language and be done with it…though I must admit I still have an idea it will be easier to speak English with a French accent than French with a French accent.
I’d say give me a day to finish the book first, but that is against the spirit of the thing which is to get on with it. Tomorrow. I’ll get on with it tomorrow. And report back. ...more
p. 3 Well, I've been getting the smallest idea of SLT over the last months, but I mean small. I only just know where the oThoughts while reading this.
p. 3 Well, I've been getting the smallest idea of SLT over the last months, but I mean small. I only just know where the on/off switch is on my computer, so my perspective is of somebody completely ignorant.
The first thing that comes to mind, reading the introduction, is what an incredibly difficult, ambitious thing it is, SLT. I'm sure the authors do not oversell it when they say, p. 2 that if it could fulfill all its aims it would transform human society.
The second thing is that this book was written in 2000 and, as far as I can see, not revised for the 2007 edition. Surely much must have changed. And surely the resources of larger computers make an ongoing difference?
It must be incredibly frustrating to be in fields where one is waiting, waiting, waiting for what is ongoingly inevitable, the increasing power of computers that will permit progress. To have to wait for technology to catch up with ideas. Oh dear.
The next thing I find myself thinking, when the authors discuss the need for accuracy, is the difference between a human translator and a computer. I wonder if an important aspect of intelligent translation is that a human, having made a mistake, may well soon enough recognise and correct it in whatever way might be appropriate.
Can SLT do that? Is this something it would need deep reasoning capability to achieve? Is it possible? It seems to me that however accurate one hopes to make the system, the possibility of being able to recognise mistakes would be a great asset.
Well. Food for thought as I cook dinner. All my technology is up to the task, I'm so lucky.
A couple of days later...
By p. 6 (!) I thought I was on a roll....but suddenly, as you read p. 6, your eyes are disconcertingly drawn to p. 7. They hit you with something that made me get out my garlic necklace, worn as a rule only when reading Manny's Stephanie Meyer reviews. Little did I know it would come in handy for a science text book. So, I put on my garlic necklace and anything else I hope will ward off evil. Dear reader, you are probably already thinking 'oh no, not -' Yes, I'm afraid so. It's a flow chart. My eyes glaze over and I dare say yours too.
Now, my attitude when I picked up this book was to do it properly. The authors wanted me to read a flow chart, I'd damn well read it, if it killed me. Back in a bit.
8 hours, 16 cups of tea and 5 scones later, I have a pain in my stomach. It's this $%#&@ chart. So, I've tried. Honestly I tried. But it is time to move on. And then I discover something that wll make life easier for the rest of you. The flow chart is explained in words. Ladies and gentlemen, I am back in business.
Windfarms are becoming big business in Australia and a Senate enquiry report has just come out looking at the implications, including, most importantlWindfarms are becoming big business in Australia and a Senate enquiry report has just come out looking at the implications, including, most importantly, health.
The aspect of health that is most likely to be affected by windfarms is the psychological and physiological debilitation resulting from noise pollution and the report observes, in attempting to hear from all interested parties:
The Committee did not receive any evidence from people who are living near the turbines and who are receiving recompense for the use of their land. The reasons for this are unclear. Several witnesses claimed that the host landholders are subject to 'gag' orders under the terms of their contracts with the developers. This was denied by the industry...
The report goes on to discuss the technical aspects of what is happening:
Noise measurement 2.32 The measurement of noise as used in the Standards is dB(A). This measure was explained as being appropriate because it simulates human hearing. Dr Warwick Williams, a Senior Research Engineer at the National Acoustic Laboratories, explained that the A-weighting heavily discounts the low frequencies and the very high frequencies. A-weighting discounts infrasound as it is below the level of human hearing.
2.33 Many persons who complain of the noise produced by wind farms refer to noise that lies within the low frequency range, and to infrasound (sound of less than 20 hertz). As discussed earlier, the 'thump' which apparently is produced by wind turbines and which causes distress to some people is a low frequency sound. According to the Sonus report, over large distances, whilst the absolute level of sound in all frequencies declines, the relative level of low frequency noise increases compared with mid and high frequencies. The Sonus report states that low frequency sound can be easily measured, and 'the C-weighting network (dB(C)) has been developed to determine the human perception and annoyance due to noise that lies within the low frequency range'
2.34 Mr Huson submitted that neither the C-weighting nor the A-weighting is appropriate for the measurement of very low frequencies:
If we were to investigate lower frequency sound levels from wind farms we cannot use the C-weighting or the A-weighting since these attenuate low frequency sound <20 Hz significantly. The G-weighting is designed to quantify infrasound below 20 Hz.
2.35 Dr Geoff Leventhall, a British acoustics consultant, informed the committee that:
...as environmental noise control criteria are A-weighted, they tend to under-rate potentially problematic low frequency environmental noise. This has led low frequency problems to be left to continue, whilst higher frequency problems are fixed more quickly. As a result, where genuine low frequency noise problems have occurred, their continuance leads to the development of undue stress in those affected. There is also a body of very stressful, unsolvable noise problems, described as “low frequency” by those affected, where detailed investigations cannot discover a specific noise source.
2.36 The Noise Management Services report commissioned by Mr and Mrs Dean on the noise impact of Waubra Wind Farm suggested that:
There are many possible ways that low frequency sounds may influence the ear at levels that are unrelated to hearing sensitivity. As some structures of the ear respond to low frequency sound at levels below those that are heard, the practice of A-weighting (or G-weighting) sound measurements grossly underestimates the possible influence of these sounds on the physiology of the ear. The high infrasound component of wind turbine noise may account for high annoyance ratings, sleep disturbance and reduced quality of life for those living near wind turbines.
I don't understand why Australia seems to be moving away from solar, when it would seem to have the perfect conditions for it, and towards something that if nothing else, is both visually and aurally offensive.
I am also curious to know why it is that wind farms are set up in populated areas, sometimes in scenes that were previously of breathtaking beauty, rather than in all the empty bits. Is it because infrastructure exists in populated areas? I guess that's the obvious answer.
The report is 132 pages long. I have quoted just a tiny bit of it.
Been mulling this over for a while.
One of the ideas that comes from the advocates of nuclear generated power is that when we have an accident that will just be collateral damage.
This is from Manny’s review:
The chapter on nuclear power is also very good. As MacKay says, nuclear is dangerous, but it's not infinitely dangerous. Other kinds of energy are dangerous too. He tries to quantify the risk from nuclear to the best of his ability, in terms of the number of deaths you could reasonably expect per unit of generated energy; then he compares with other forms of energy. It's by no means clear that nuclear is, in fact, so dangerous… MacKay presents the figures dispassionately, and adds, in a typical aside, that you shouldn't conclude that he's pro-nuclear; he's pro-arithmetic.
It is kind of chilling reading it put like that, wouldn’t you say?
Maybe we do all agree that what’s happening in Japan is just arithmetic. But it is arithmetic we only want to see on Fox TV news. We don’t actually want to be there. A nuclear wastedump? Go THERE? Check me out now p-lease.
Isn’t it beautiful? This IS Japan. It is Hakodate, the same town we were in six months ago, it was flooded by the tsunami, the fishing industry is dead, but still, there is this.
Coming from Australia means I come from the country that is selling uranium while having as little as possible to do with it in our own country. Nuclear power? You must be joking. Australia has obvious alternatives in solar and wind, since most of the country is an uninhabitable desert of sun and wind. But I gather that in Europe nuclear power makes sense, you all believe in it over here. But if you believe in it, then part of that belief has got to be that you WILL go to Japan and see what it really is, not just what Fox News tells you it is.
Will you go to Japan? Now? If not, why not?
I’ve been discussing this lately with people partly because a friend runs an international music festival in Hakodate. Post-Japan almost all the overseas acts have pulled out. So, I did what an Australian would. I started writing to musicians in Australia asking if they would consider going. This is not good timing as the festival is in a few months and of course most musicians have their schedules organised a year or more in advance. But still, the very first person I wrote to replied straight away with yes, she would.
Then I noticed that our Prime Minister is in Japan at the moment, the first overseas leader to visit. She was just involved in a fund-raiser there with a name which will mean more to the average goodreader: Kylie. Quoting from ABC news: http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/20...
Kylie Minogue, in town for a series of concerts, was also guest of honour at the fundraiser, which raised about $140,000 for a Red Cross tsunami appeal through ticket sales alone. She is one of the few international acts who decided to continue the Japanese leg of their world tours, with many others cancelling because of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster.
I don’t know what this says about Australians compared with the rest of the first world. I can’t help compare with this, from a blog here: http://concordnanae.com/:
Dear friends and family,
As of March 24th I will be taking a temporary leave of absence from my job in Nanae, Japan. The current plan is to abscond to Hawaii on standby, with the intention to return to Japan on April 3rd. If, however, the nuclear crisis in Fukushima remains as nebulous as it is right now, I will likely extend my stay and will consider returning to Concord to continue my work as Coordinator of International Relations from there in our American sister city.
Experiencing this terrible tragedy firsthand has been a life-changing experience. I have grown as a journalist, a government employee, and most of all as a person, and have been awakened to the full depth of my appreciation and love for Nanae. My heart remains with the Japanese people during this tense time, and I ardently hope that we will be reunited very soon.
That was April 3 and the blog hasn’t been updated since. Kind of ironic that this is from somebody whose job title is ‘Coordinator of International Relations’. I just don’t quite get how the words fit in with the actions.
There are millions of people in Japan who have to live with the consequences of arithmetic, who are what we like to call collateral damage. I’m wondering if the difference between them and the first world people who are happy to support the idea that nuclear catastrophe is arithmetic, is that we all have the agency to flee it. Maybe it is the rich people of the world who see nuclear power as necessary and the defects as collateral.
Of course, complicating this view is that the Japanese themselves are still remarkably isolationist. I have no idea if they even notice that we are not going there, and if they notice, I don’t know if they care.
Written at the risk of incurring the ire of Paul.
The issue was raised on Manny's review of this book as to whether it was possible to sell the idea that we should be wearing chunky warm sweaters and that if only we'd all do this, practically all the problems facing us would be solved. Or something like that...sorry, I like to be extravagant.
Can warm jumpers look sexy? If I was a boy I'd think all these were:
She's so gorgeous I have to give you this one too:
When I was little I really wanted to grow up to be Julie because it seemed like the obvious way to get Christopher Plummer to fall in love with me:
Well, I don't see why the good example of these girls can't save the planet for us. If anybody can.
"If some sense of moderation cannot check the raging avarice which without concern for mankind increases and grows by leaps and bounds--we will not say from year to year, month to month, or day to day, but almost from hour to hour and even from minute to minute--if our regard for the people's welfare could tolerate unmoved this mad licence from which in such a situation the people suffer in the worst possible fashion from day to day, some ground perhaps would be found for concealing the truth and saying nothing. . . ."
I guess that might have been written yesterday, but actually it was Diocletian during the fall of the Roman Empire.
What is the difference between us and all the other civilisations that have, at their apex, destroyed themselves? Ours is the only one that built the capacity to take the whole shebang with it. It must be really irritating to people who live in straw huts and walk everywhere that they are going to go too.
Campaigners also mislead. People who want to promote renewables over nuclear, for example, say “offshore wind power could power all UK homes;” then they say “new nuclear power stations will do little to tackle climate change” because 10 new nuclear stations would “reduce emissions only by about 4%.” This argument is misleading because the playing field is switched half-way through, from the “number of homes powered” to “reduction of emissions.” The truth is that the amount of electrical power generated by the wonderful windmills that “could power all UK homes” is exactly the same as the amount that would be generated by the 10 nuclear power stations! “Powering all UK homes” accounts for just 4% of UK emissions.
That's a fabulously dishonest piece of promotion, I must say.
What about this statistic:
The financial expenditure by the USA on manufacturing and deploying nuclear weapons from 1945 to 1996 was $5.5 trillion (in 1996 dollars). Nuclear-weapons spending over this period exceeded the combined total federal spending for education; agriculture; training, employment, and social services; natural resources and the environment; general science, space, and technology; community and regional development (including disaster relief); law enforcement; and energy production and regulation.
I've read this paragraph a dozen times and I'm still gobsmacked. It's like some bizarre sci-fi story. The idea that it is the real world, the real expenditure of a Western democracy, beggars belief.
Another fascinating statistic:
According to the Stern review, the global cost of averting dangerous climate change (if we act now) is $440 billion per year ($440 per year per person, if shared equally between the 1 billion richest people). In 2005, the US government alone spent $480 billion on wars and preparation for wars. The total military expenditure of the 15 biggest military-spending countries was $840 billion.
There is some discussion here of the nature of the market and whether it can be the tool via which climate change is meaningfully brought about.
What should we do to bring about the development of non-fossil energy supply, and of efficiency measures? One attitude is “Just let the market handle it. As fossil fuels become expensive, renewables and nuclear power will become relatively cheaper, and the rational consumer will prefer efficient technologies.” I find it odd that people have such faith in markets, given how regularly markets give us things like booms and busts, credit crunches, and collapses of banks. Markets may be a good way of making some short-term decisions – about investments that will pay off within ten years or so – but can we expect markets to do a good job of making decisions about energy, decisions whose impacts last many decades or centuries?
If the free market is allowed to build houses, we end up with houses that are poorly insulated. Modern houses are only more energy-efficient thanks to legislation.
Well, not really. The market, like the democracy is no more than the reflection of our wishes. We can't blame the market, any more than we can blame our politicians. Both are doing what we want.
What we have to change is not the market, not the politicians, but ourselves. The rest will follow. But unfortunately we all have the pathetic 'little old me can't do anything on my own and so I will do nothing' attitude which lets us carry on doing the wrong thing ad infinitum. And so everybody does nothing, whereas if they all did something, that would add up to quite a bit. It is plain wrong to say that doing something isn't enough. Just setting an example is something. Fighting the good fight is something. And that will be catchy. If we do the right thing, the politicians and the market will do the right thing too. Stop blaming systems and institutions and others. Take responsibility, each and every person. It is your fault, my fault, our fault.
If we want the market and the politicians to do the right thing, at least behave in a way that lets them understand that.
Still, the fact is that democracy is uniquely unqualified for the task at hand. The whole point of democracy as it is played out in practice in most of the world is that I say 'yes' and you say 'no'. It is how it works. Well, if you call that working. Nothing, including as we can see now, the end of the world, is going to change that.
We need a benevolent dictator, somebody at the top of the world whom we permit to be in charge. It is obvious from reading this book that if we did that now, with not much money and not much time invested, there is the distinct possibility that we would save ourselves. I'm voting for Bill Clinton. If he sorted out the US economy, surely this will be a piece of cake for him. Even when he's lying you feel like you can trust him. He has an equally good micro and macro eye. He knows an awful lot. He's fair.
And, just addressing the girls in the audience, who wouldn't want to not have sex with him? Or is that just in my head because I'm not getting enough?
I can't imagine reading this book, having lived through Manny's reading of it. It was awful, having to listen to him talk about how completely Frayn hI can't imagine reading this book, having lived through Manny's reading of it. It was awful, having to listen to him talk about how completely Frayn had misunderstood everything in science and philosophy he talked about. When he did come to actual interesting content by Frayn he couldn't stand the round about, waffling way in which he wrote, peppering everything with asides which were sometimes entertaining and generally irrelevant. Somehow Bill Bryson writing mostly of irrelevancies is okay, but not Frayn. Maybe he isn't good enough a writer.
Having started this book some years ago, I am certainly never going to read it now. I don't have the discerning eye resulting from knowledge of the fields to be able to read it in a discriminating way. But I want to make a few points which come from my understanding of Frayn which explain the failure of this book.
The first is that this book is the consequence of a shambles - Frayn's mulling over the world for a great many years. So when, for example, he discusses some point of AI which has been obsolete for decades, or a Chomsky theory which he himself abandoned before the old queen died, this is, I suspect, because that his ideas came from that period. We happen to be reading them now.
The second is that this book undoubtedly reflects something Frayn talks about in Stage Directions - he found it very hard to go back to novels after working as a dramatist for a long period because writing plays was writing in a highly disciplined limited way, whereas novel writing was like open countryside compared with the city. Limitless. He found it necessary to create ways to give the novel limits. One can see that, for example, in one of my favourites, The Trick of It. In this context, what could be more unbounded, less able to be disciplined, than the subject of The Human Touch?
The third is that Frayn - and again this comes from reading Stage Directions - is obsessed with the notion of the audience and in particular with is ability to change the thing it is watching. Nothing is objective. The meaning of everything and anything comes from its audience.
I spent a year in Marbury, a non-authoritarian school modelled on Summerhill. It was all too weird for words. Next time any of you wonder why I don'tI spent a year in Marbury, a non-authoritarian school modelled on Summerhill. It was all too weird for words. Next time any of you wonder why I don't know what continent Spain is in, or why places that are further away have times that are closer or...keep in mind that my geography text book for the year was The Naked Ape.
Well, I say it was that sort of school like it's to blame for my appalling ignorance of geography. If only I'd chosen a normal school instead. But truth be told, the next year I did chose an ordinary school - Methodist Ladies College - and blow me down if the maths teacher didn't turn out to be a girl who made us do things like write poetry. 'Your maths assignment for today is to write a poem in the style of Jabberwocky' It's moot whether my maths is worse than my geography.
Sigh. I wouldn't mind so much if my poetry was any good.
I can't help it, I love coincidences. So did Koestler. Just to prove how incredibly clever he is despite this, I offer from Theodore Dalrymple:
I can't help it, I love coincidences. So did Koestler. Just to prove how incredibly clever he is despite this, I offer from Theodore Dalrymple:
Someone who had known Arthur Koestler told me a little story about him. Koestler was playing Scrabble with his wife, and he put the word vince down on the board.
“Arthur,” said his wife, “what does ‘vince’ mean?”
Koestler, who never lost his strong Hungarian accent but whose mastery of English was such that he was undoubtedly one of the twentieth century’s great prose writers in the language, replied (one can just imagine with what light in his eyes): “To vince is to flinch slightly viz pain.”
How many people could define a word in their first language with such elegant precision, let alone in their fourth, and moreover combine it with such irresistibly wicked humor?
When I was little my father tried to make sure that we experienced as much as possible of people and things. Most mysteriously we had Chinese people tWhen I was little my father tried to make sure that we experienced as much as possible of people and things. Most mysteriously we had Chinese people to tea - in the mid 1960s that was really quite unusual. I especially recall being taken to a place where autistic children lived...though when I asked my father about this earlier today he couldn't confirm for me that this was so.
This was the first Sacks I read and it really brought home to me how lucky we'd been to have parents who instilled in us the virtue of seeing life as Sacks sees it. He celebrates the idea that something which so easily could be seen as a negative, a deficiency, in fact turns out to be the thing that gives somebody a special way of being in the world.
If only everybody believed that. Instead in one of the stories in this book, siblings who communicate in prime numbers are separated from each other in an attempt to force them to relate to the world in a conventional way. It's just too appalling for words....more