INDEX OF TITLES  (0030- 0042 July 2007)

   0030 - Salvation not guaranteed - but there is hope
   0031 - Theory of measurement
   0032 - The graceless species: use and abuse of brain power
   0033 - Don Quxote vs. English
   0034 - When you can't tell right from wrong
   0035 - Brain: not just a tool for survival
   0036 - Quality Assurance
   0037 - Source of hope: greatness among us
   0038 - Mind at play
   0039 - Democracy: faltering toward rationality
   0040 - Mathematics redefined
   0041 - The irrationality of complete rationality
   0042 - FYI

07/27/07 (#0042) FYI

Just to let you know, The Nutshell is not dead - just recovering from a sudden major change in circumstances. Hang in there!
The Nutshell is coming back soon!

Until then,
Paul W.

07/18/07 (#0041) The irrationality of complete rationality

Is absolute rationality possible? Or even rational? We don't and evidently can't know everything (e.g. we can't know with certainty what the future holds). So, right off the bat, we lack the data needed for a completely rational analysis of the situation and the situation is changing in unpredictable ways even as we analyse it. Even in the realm of pure logic where all the postulated givens are exactly known, it turns out there are propositions which cannot be proven to be true or untrue and problems which are intrinsically insoluble.

We can be rational only up to a point. But there's life beyond that point which is unreachable by rational analysis, and it is that irrational part of life that is the most significant and most interesting. Those aspects of life which we can rationalize and bring under control become predictable and therefore boring. Yes, we need this predictability in order to have a stable base for our lives but maintaining a stable base is a maintenance chore - it is not what we refer to when we say "get a life!".

The intrinsically irrational aspects of life is where it's at, where wonder and joy reside, the source of unexpected new possibilities and of all creativity.  What a wonderful world this is where not everything can be explained! How horrible it would be if we knew and understood everything  - there would be no point living in such a world. Fortunately, such a world cannot exist: the ideal of living completely rationally is not only irrational, it's impossible.

The Nutshell is taking Thursday off.

Until Friday,

Paul W.

07/17/07 (#0040)  Mathematics redefined

The OED defines mathematics as: "the abstract science which investigates deductively the conclusions implicit in the elementary conceptions of spacial and numerical relations". That's pretty good (I wouldn't expect anything less from the OED) but for my taste it's too specific. For starters I would substitute "possible relations among magnitudes" for "spacial and numerical relations". This gets around the embarassment of having to define "spacial" and "numerical". I define "magnitude" as the difference between two distinct entities whether real or imaginary. In the case of pure mathematics the entities are always imaginary and ideal, with exactly defined properties. In the case of applied mathematics the entities are real and only imperfectly knowable.

Here's my revision of the OED definition of pure mathematics: "Investigation of logically possible relations among postulated entities with exactly defined structures/properties". You gotta admit it has an edge over the OED definition in terms of conciseness and economy of expression. Also, it's more general -  the entities can be anything conceivable and every conceivable way they can relate is grist for the mathematical mill. Numbers and spaces are only incidental by-products of mathematical reasoning.

As for "applied mathematics", there are those who do not consider it to be mathematics at all but mere counting and measuring. But counting and measuring was the humble beginning of mathematics. And, as distressing as it is to pure mathematicians, some of the results of their abstract reasoning keep finding applications in the real world. Nobody knows why.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

07/16/07 (#0039)  Democracy: Faltering towards rationality

The great majority of voters in a democratic election are uninformed, misinformed, confused, prejudiced and politically naive. In other words unqualified and unable to make a rational choice.  The bulk of the votes cast is just chaotic noise, signifying nothing. It is the task of the politicians and special interest groups to manipulate and shape this amorphous mass of votes to their own advantage by disseminating selected information and misinformation, confusing the issues and appealing to the prevailing prejudices.

However, there is a meaningful signal, however feeble, rising above the noise. Some of it comes from the minority of the informed and thoughtful voters with a clear understanding of the issues. And some of it comes from the ignorant mass of the voters itself. Ignorant though they may be, the voters collectively manifest the current politico-economic climate. And if people in general are unhappy enough they will seek to change the status quo (not always for the better) regardless of the agendas of the politicians and the special interests. That in spite of the fact that people, whether they consider themselves conservative or liberal, normally tend to resist changes in their personal status quo.

So there is hope. The influence of the informed vote and the people's limited tolerance for deteriorating conditions provide an opposition to the politicians' and special interest's agendas. It is usually too weak to effect substantial changes and the changes effected are not always for the better (the usual two steps forward one step back pattern of progress) but it is there, and in course of time its effect is cumulative. Besides, I believe optimistically that the average ignorance of the mass of the voters is on the decline and will continue to decline. But that's just me.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

07/14/07 (#0038)  Mind at play

This is the month of the Harry Potter double whammy: the fifth movie just came out this week and the seventh (and last) book is due out a week from today. OK, I admit it: I own all six of the HP epics as well as the four movies and I did go to see the fifth one. Why? Well, obviously not in my role as the seeker after truth - the HP tales are not only fiction (which I distrust on principle as a vehicle for truth) they are fantastic fiction, deliberately unmoored from reality except for certain links necessary to retain an aura of credibility. What I like about them and what keeps me coming back for more is the sheer entertainment they provide. Yeah, let's get fantastic, let's let go of the mundane world of the muggles and let's create something fabulously different. It doesn't have to be true, it doesn't have to be instructive, it only has to be fascinating and thrilling. Yee haw!

Which is why, if I do read fiction, which is rarely, I usually read fantasy or science fiction. Forget truth - I don't look for truth in novels - let's have innovation, originality and freedom to imagine anything. This is not a study of the world as it is, this is unfettered mind at play. And it is from such play that great ideas are sometimes born which do find application in the real world and end up casting new light on truth.

Until Monday,

Paul W.

07/13/07 (#0037)  Source of hope: greatness among us

Friday the thirteenth - a triskadekaphiliac's delight.

Politics, economy, and technology do not concern me. What concerns me is people. Where people of intelligence, good will, and social consciousness predominate, whatever problems may face us are being resolved. But where people driven by greed or lust or need for self-aggrandizement predominate, the earth is laid to waste and terror reigns. We have both kinds on this planet and depending on where one looks one may be filled with hope and wonder or with horror and despair. Mostly, one observes a struggle between the two, a struggle complicated by disagreements on what constitutes a good life. And the outcome is not obvious.

However, I'm an optimist. The mere fact that we do have great-hearted and splendid-minded people among us encourages me. There is a legend that God will not destroy the world if as few as thirty six good people can be found on it. I believe that. It only takes a few good seeds to raise a great harvest. I believe that intelligence, intellectual, emotional and social will always prevail against chaos given half a chance. Half a chance is all we need. It's slow going now, but I think we are on an exponential curve toward an enlightened majority of the human population. If the weather doesn't get us, I believe the golden age of humanity lies ahead of us.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

07/12/07 (#0036)  Quality Assurance

Quality. In it's positive sense it has been defined simply as "just what you like" (Pirsig). For mass manufacturers and producers of material goods this translates to "just what a large majority of potential customers will like".  This is determined by the market research people who then write Quality Specifications which tell the production people "if you make it like that they will like it".

Easier said than done. Production is not a perfect process. Like everything else, it is variable and subject to errors. Product quality will vary, so we need Quality Inspection to detect and remove product that does not meet the specs (keeping in mind that QI itself is subject to errors). Of course, in addition to Quality Inspection, we need Quality Control: the engineering people must provide a way of controlling the process so that the quality of the product can be readjusted by the production people when it starts drifting away from the specifications. Even so, some off-spec product will be made and some of it will escape Quality Inspection. That is a practical certainty.

This is where Quality Assurance steps in. QA asks: "what percentage of out-of-spec product can we tolerate economically, given the cost of returns, lost sales, adverse publicity, etc.?" Then it devises QI and QC strategies to assure that no greater percentage of such product gets out in the market (plus or minus a certain error). At the same time QA assures that the percentage of out-of-spec product is no lesser since reducing it could substantially increase the cost of production.

And that is the best we can do, and it is very good. Except in the opinion of those who demand perfection. But such people are damned to eternal disappointment.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

07/11/07 (#0035)  Brain: not just a tool for survival

The human brain definitely tops any list of Wonders of the World. Maybe not of the universe, but certainly of this planet. We know of nothing more intricate, more marvelous or more mysterious.

One of my readers referred to it somewhat dismissively as "the 2 1/2 lb. brain". But the information and the information processing algorithms packed into those 2 1/2 pounds are, well, mind boggling. Astonishing as the gigantic feats of computing that our brains perform routinely merely to keep us conscious and active, once in a while we get a reminder, in form of a genius or a prodigy, that our brains are potentially capable of far more.

The fascinating thing is that genius often has nothing to do with utility, that is with the need for survival and thriving of the species, which is what drove the evolution of the brain to begin with.  The brain is no longer a purely utilitarian structure whose sole purpose is preservation and maintenance of life - it now has functionalities, such as aesthetic appreciation, which go far beyond mere maintenance of life to enhancement of its quality. Sometimes even at a risk of loosing it or intentionally giving it up when its quality deteriorates. What matters now is the enjoyment of life and that trumps mere survival.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

07/10/07 (#0034)  When you can't tell right from wrong

Here's what scares me: not being able to tell right from wrong. In music: is this chord right or wrong? No clue. In visual arts: are the proportions right or wrong? I can't tell. In logic: is my argument correct or am I missing something obvious? If I am I don't know what it is.  It's the inability to judge, to discriminate between the good and the bad that is really really scary.

I pay attention to whatever is the situation so that I can respond appropriately. Sometimes it's immediately obvious what needs to be done. Sometimes it takes time and careful analysis to decide what is the right action under the circumstances. And sometimes I just don't know what to do.

Of course, most of the time it is not a matter of life and death and what I decide to do is of little or no consequence. But life does bring up important or critical choices from time to time and that's when inability to tell right from wrong can become terrifying.

Training/education, tradition/custom, doctrine/law, these are aids to help us make the right judgement, but despite the great volume of accumulated wisdom we continue to face uniquely original dilemmas with no answers.  That's when the existential fear really kicks in.  We toss a coin, follow a hunch, or go with the feeling, then plunge into the dark and hope.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

07/09/07 (#0033)  Don Quixote vs. English

I own 21 editions of "Don Quixote". Three Spanish, one Polish, and the rest are various English translations from the first one done in the 16th century to the latest published in 2005. (This by no means exhausts the list of English versions of which at least forty are known). My reason for this quixotic collection has nothing to do with the opinion of the majority of literary critics who consider DQ to be the first modern novel and the greatest one written so far. (That despite the fact that long stretches of it are all but unreadable and the whole thing is a ramshackle patchwork of episodic tales held together by the presence of the two unarguably most fabulous characters ever). No, the reason I have collected all these versions is that I'm trying to recapture the childhood enchantment of my first exposure to the Cervantez classic at the age of about five. I was an early reader. "Don Quixote" was the first novel I have ever read and I was transfixed with wonder.

The version I read at five was an abridged Polish version illustrated by Gustav Dore. It has long ago vanished from my life - it was left behind in 1939 as we were escaping from the Nazis. The problem with the English versions, almost all of them, is that English and Spanish are vastly different in spirit and power of expression. Spanish is a language naturally expressive of feelings, English is a language naturally expressive of facts. Not that English is incapable of effective expression of feelings, but it is English feelings that it is most adept at expressing. Try as it might, it is incapable of expressing accurately, succintly and elegantly, all that Spanish expresses with natural grace and ease. Literal transations of DQ are a travesty. Translations which praphrase, Anglicise and otherwise transform the text for more natural sound tend to loose the spirit and sometimes the meaning of the original. There is no truly satisfactory English translation of DQ though some are better than others.

I have not yet mastered Spanish sufficiently to be able to read DQ fluently in the original language. However, I am blessed with good command of Polish, a language far closer in spirit to Spanish than English. There are two or three translations of DQ into Polish, one of which is quite excellent. As best I can tell, it captures the original vividly and accurately in a language that feels perfectly natural. It is certainly far and above any of the English translations. Until I master Spanish, it will do.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

07/07/07 (#0032)  The graceless species: use and abuse of brain power

Proportion. Balance. Grace. The "sweet spot" of existence, where everything comes together "just right". One would think that most individual lives would naturally gravitate to that state of optimal grace - and one would be right, except for one species: homo sapiens. In the case of all other animals and living creatures the optimal grace is the norm, the middle of the Bell curve. The graceless misfits are usually a small minority and they get eaten up in short order by organisms higher up in the food chain. The unreasoning nature is beautiful and elegant and graceful. Even dumb rocks, air, water and fire exist in a state of grace.

Not so homo sapiens. We have just enough intelligence and reasoning power to get ourselves into trouble and inevitably, inexorably we do. The universal trap that we all fall into: our inordinate trust in our own powers of reasoning leads us to think we understand more than we do. And the more successful we are in achieving our goals the more vulnerable we become to this conceit. Result? Those of us who live in the state of optimal grace are in a small minority. Decidedly abnormal.

It's difficult for the by far the brainiest species on the planet to be humble, but that is precisely the virtue we need to avoid becoming extinct. Superior intelligence is a successful strategy for survival only when firmly anchored in relentless, ruthless realism. The moment we substitute mental processes for facts on the ground we're dead meat. Especially since we have no other strategy to fall back on - for better or worse we have become utterly dependent on our brains.

Until Monday,

Paul W.

07/06/07 (#0031)  Theory of Measurement

(Re: TN #30)  Jesus, being God, did create a guarantee for salvation. A partial view of the situation may seem like failure, but we do not see the whole picture. We don't know what has happened to past generations, but, as you said, we have hope; and faith, which is the core of Christianity. Trust that Jesus is right and lean on that which has happened in our lives to confirm our faith and his promises. Free will - a wonderfully horrible thing. Wonderful, we are not puppets. Horrible, there is room for error. - Elisa

Yes, there's room for error. But there is also a way out of error. See also below.  - The Ed

Jesus did not attempt to do anything  to 
'humanity' (or 'the entire human race'); he merely(?!!!) made it possible for 'humanity' not to remain in its state and destiny.  It is completely up to the individual in every age whether or not to accept the proffered possibility of a change of state and destiny.

"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me."  (Jesus) -

Did I not say just that? However, it's true that Jesus did offer a guarantee to those who believe and trust in him. I think that is the secret of the success of Christianity. - The Ed

Two things of value I carried away from my four year stint at the School of Practical Science at the University of Toronto: The eye-opening freshman course in Philosophy 101 (required and generally hated) and the Theory of Measurement, the foundation of my professional success and of my understanding of the world. I hardly remember the rest - thermodynamics, kinetics, organic chemistry, differential equations - most of it a bore.

It was the Theory of Measurement that, many years later, led me to formulate the "Elements of Existence", an essay on nature of being I wrote to clarify for myself what's what and why. It was the Theory of Measurement (with a little help from "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance") that defined "quality" for me, in all its meanings. The fact is the Theory of Measurement forms the bulk of my education - it was the most seminal course of study I have ever undertaken.

What is the Theory of Measurement, already? you ask. In a nutshell: it has to do with errors in observations of differences. It teaches that error is unavoidable and in order to allow for it you must know (approximately) what it is. Knowing your error is the source of all wisdom. The secret of success - whether building a bridge or creating a painting or running a country - lies in the strategies for dealing with errors, known and unknown. 

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.

07/05/07 (#0030)  Salvation not guaranteed - but there is hope

(Re; TN #28)  I think people severely bullied in their childhood spend a lot of time
"trying to survive by their wits and will in a hostile and predatory world." Childhood experiences can, unfortunately, warp our vision of what is possible. -Eleanor

Stunting of the potential for consciousness is, IMHO, the ultimate crime. - The Ed

It could not have been the intent of Jesus, the Christian Messiah, to save the whole of humanity. If that were the case, a review of the history of the so called Christian Era and of the current state of the world would force one to conclude that Jesus has failed.

It may have been Jesus' desire to save the entire human race, but the logic of free will and the uncertainty of the uncreated future precludes that. All that Jesus could realistically offer was a way towards salvation, that is, towards the realization of the full human potential for joy. He could not guarantee it. At least not in the world of time and space. 

Looking at Jesus' legacy from this realistic point of view, there's room for hope. The core of his teachings has persisted and has affected (and continues to affect) the evolution of world civilization in positive ways. In general, there has been at the very least a preservation of what good will there is among men if not an actual increase. I, for one, believe, optimistically, there  has been an increase, though I know I will be shouted down by the chorus of those who believe things have never been worse than they are now. I am not one of them.

Until tomorrow,

Paul W.