Monday, November 22, 2010

Understanding a Foreign Language

I sometimes get asked what it's like to understand a foreign language.

It just occurred to me that the process is something like listening to familiar music on better and better quality headphones- progressively you hear things that you didn't even know were there before. And then you finally understand the lyrics, and can't quite imagine the time when you didn't understand them.

That's the best way I can describe it.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Way of the Future

Away with printed words. Or at least, words printed with ink on hundreds of pages.

I have a Kindle now, and it is awesome. It looks so much like paper that you will find it hard to believe at first. I thought someone had stuck a piece of paper on the screen at first. And if you read longer titles it will also be lighter to hold, very good for lounging with. In fact, superior to paper-backs for lounging. And it allows you to keep one hand free to...hold a coffee cup, of course.

The selection of Kindle titles is not as complete as I'd like (quality fiction seems most lacking) but this will only get better with time. Browsing titles, thinking "Hey, I'd really like to read that", and then having a copy of the book 5-10 seconds later is an amazing experience. And after, say, 10-15 books it pays for itself. I already bought 12 titles for it...

Anyway, go get one. It's the way of the future. The way of the future.

The way of the future...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Biggest Problem With The Internet

The comments sections in TED videos and the more serious Youtube videos are often full of weirdos. Neurotic, abusive, weirdos. It's probably the biggest problem with the internet. Related to, but separate from, the uncivilized manner in which people interact with each other.

It really makes me wonder, are 90 percent of people in the world like this, with the self-control to retain composure in public? Or does the internet just get filled with the shouting of a vocal minority?

I'm going to be optimistic and say that it's the latter...

Though I often feel it's the former.

The Mistakes Can Help

I've been reviewing mathematics and logic recently, because I'm planning on returning to university next year to study those subjects more. It may seem an odd step, but I personally find it odd that more philosophy students don't get drawn in by maths after they discover most of philosophy to be pretentious douchebags building theories and arguments from mist. But I probably feel this way because the way I was first introduced to philosophy was as a logic student in highschool, so it is perhaps more a return to a first love than anything else.


It strikes me that while answer sections in the back of the books are helpful, it can actually be beneficial for say, 2-3 percent of those answers to be mistakes. It not only keeps you thinking, it's also a reminder of the room for human error, and it also allows you the exhilaration of feeling that you got one up on the author of the textbook.

On a related note, Wolfram Alpha is a great way of settling the debate of whether your answer is right or the textbook's.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Riffing on The 13th Floor v The Matrix

*I assume here, kind reader, that you've at least seen The Matrix, so if you have not...then there may be a spoiler here. I won't spoil any important details for The 13th Floor though as few people have seen it...

So I recently watched The 13th Floor again, since first seeing it probably 10 years ago (I'd heard it mentioned in a brilliant podcast that I listen to). And though I've lost count of the amount of times I've seen The Matrix, the most recent time was probably a few months ago when it was on tv. Both films were released in 1999, by competing film houses, and both explore the concept of virtual worlds. It's interesting to compare how each film has fared now that over a decade has passed.

Surprisingly, even though The Matrix had a budget of 63 million, as opposed to 16 million for The 13th Floor, it's the latter film that has stood the test of time visually. The CGI in The Matrix- which was very ambitious at the time- looks really obvious now, whereas the more subtle effects used in The 13th Floor haven't really dated at all.

Most of the acting in The 13th Floor is better than The Matrix too. Both of the protagonists are computer programmers, though these days the rich, successful Douglas Hall from The 13th Floor seems more realistic than the genius-level-programmer-working-at-mundane-cubicle described by Thomas Anderson in The Matrix. Craig Bierko's classical/musical training shows when you contrast it with Keanu Reeves' monotone. As for supporting roles both films are a mixed bag- Armin Mueller-Stahl (Shine, The Game, Eastern Promises) is wonderful as the brilliant A.I researcher Hannon Fuller, but Dennis Haysbert (the grill chef from Heat) wasn't able to convince in his role as detective McBain.

The thing about the two films though is that The Matrix is really just an awesome action movie with a backdrop that happens to be kind of philosophically interesting. The 13th Floor is more a pure sci-fi film which uses a murder-mystery plot device to keep the story going. As a result, on a scene-by-scene basis The 13th Floor doesn't have anything as memorable as the excellently choreographed fight-scenes and shoot-outs of The Matrix. What The 13th Floor does have though is a series of very interesting question throughout the film- can consciousness emerge digitally? Would we have ethical obligations to digital forms of consciousness? If we talk about levels of reality, then is one more real than the other? How would you know whether you were living in a simulation?

Whereas The Matrix asks the question "could your world be an illusion?" and then proceeds to answer by judo-chopping you in the throat. I like both films plenty, but after revisiting them both I have to say that The 13th Floor is my preferred film when it comes to making me think, and I suspect it'd be the best coffee-shop, hand-waving material as well.

Funnily enough, the closest analogy for the differences between these films that I can think of occured just a year before they were released- I'm talking about when Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line came out in 1998.
Both are war films, but whereas Spielberg's film was more about the visual horror of war, Terry Malick's masterpiece delved deeper into the nature of man.

By the way, whilst I suspect that we might be able to produce photo-realistic graphics that are rendered in real-time within the next 10-20 years, actually having an interface that interacts with your brain in such a way as to convince you that you're in that environment is something I can't see happening for a real long time, as it's more in the real of neuroscience than computer science. And neuroscientists don't seem to enjoy the same speed of progress as computer scientists.

Friday, November 12, 2010

It's Not the Size That Counts...'s how you use it.

It seems like every day I have to read about how China is or is going to be the worlds largest whatever. Largest economy. Largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Largest collection of genius I.Qs. Largest buyer of cars. Largest internet user base. Largest collection of elite university professors. Largest space station. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Firstly, there is just far too much uncertainty in this world for any of these predictions to be reliable. I was just reading about the halting problem the other day (not there, but in Seth Lloyd's book). Likewise here, the only way we'll know what's going to happen is by waiting and seeing. I was watching Working Girl yesterday - great movie by the way- and a running theme through it was corporate takeover by Japanese firms. Yeah. I think Daikyo's had its day.

And yet every day we have to hear some whimpering politician talking about China taking its "rightful place", "ruling the world", that its "China's century". The repetition of these bromides really tries one's patience. Even if I was to put some faith in these predictions, I think to myself, who does this really affect? And what should we make of this?

Well, take things as they already are. China has a much bigger GDP than, say, Norway. It has bigger everything, probably.

But where would you rather be a local citizen? Oslo or Shanghai? I mean born and raised, not the expat lifestyle.

Listening to my Norwegian friends talk about growing up, and comparing it with what my Shanghainese friends tell me, at this stage Oslo sounds like a better choice. It might not be that way in the future- maybe Shanghai will be the envy of the world with regard to quality of life. Norway was very poor in the past. But my point here is that being the biggest really isn't something that would affect my decision in the slightest.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Social Network

I had thought that Animal Kingdom wouldn't be topped as film of the year.

It has now, at the very least, come to a photo-finish between that and The Social Network.

The last film adaptation of a Ben Mezrich book I saw was 21/Bringing Down the House. And that movie was...well let's just say that seeing Kevin Spacey in such a celluloid-shitfest was like watching your favourite uncle get piglet-squeal-raped on a canoeing holiday (as was the case with Superman Returns too, but I digress- although I note that Spacey was executive producer of The Social Network).

I haven't read any of Mezrich's stuff so I don't know whether he's a good writer who got poorly adapted in 21, or whether Aaron Sorkin was very liberal when he wrote The Social Network.

In any case, the film had me hooked throughout. It moves very fast, and the dialogue really requires full attention to be appreciated. I suspect this is why I've heard a lot of negative things about the film from morons. Now, I don't mean to suggest that not liking this film means that you're a moron. But I must admit, the only negative comments from the film I've heard so far seem to be coming from moronic circles.

I only say this because I suspect some people might be put off the film, thinking that it's written to appeal to the 'Facebook generation', whatever that might mean. But it's most definitely not- and in fact all of those moronic circles I speak of are part of that very generation. Anyway...

As with any David Fincher film it is head and shoulders above everything else in terms of its technical refinement- perfectly shot, innovative yet fitting music from Trent Reznor, awesome editing. And the performances are uniformly excellent- Jessie Eisenberg has now overtaken the Juno guy as the A-list nerd-every-nerd-can-relate-to actor of Hollywood.

The only negative about the film is overly-eager cgi work on what I believe the Norwegians call froskrit, that foggy mist stuff that comes out of your mouth when you're breathing in a sub-zero climate. It was kind of like a 'more cowbell' moment from the effects artists.

Well, I guess that means Animal Kingdom is still the best film of the year.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Future proof

“Employers are seeking adaptable graduates who can respond quickly and creatively to the challenges of both the domestic and international workplaces.”

“Employers look for graduates with generalist skills like learning ability, the potential to grow within their organisational structure, and the adaptability and flexibility to move across and up into different job roles. Employers increasingly recognise that generalist degree graduates have welldeveloped communication, analytical and problem-solving skills.”

This is taken from UQ’s website. Can you guess which faculty boasts about this? Here’s a hint: one with “welldeveloped” communication skills. If you guessed “Faculty of Arts”, you would be correct! They are trying to entice people to take an Arts degree by arguing that it is somehow future proof. It should be a familiar line to anyone who has ever flicked through the higher education section of a newspaper, or careers, or whatever (I myself never do this voluntarily, but have been told to do so occasionally by various friends/family who wanted my opinion).

There was in fact a time when I thought there was something to be said about the idea that “welldeveloped communication, analytical and problem-solving skills” were the things an Arts degree conferred, and that they would be important and valuable non-tangibles.

Although I still think that the ability to write well and to possess a sharp analytical mind are vital, I no longer think an Arts degree confers these traits to any significant measure (and I am myself the unhappy holder of such a degree, as Taleb said of his MBA).

I don’t think I need to provide any further argument as to why a university who can’t proofread correctly is not in any position to teach communication skills. And with regard to analytical and problem solving skills, most of the people I took classes were terrible in both. The post-modern philosophy that dominates almost all of the humanities is more a rejection of analytical processes. There is certainly no problem solving going on anywhere in that field.

In fact, the best response to any university boasting about their ability to grant you “welldeveloped communication” skills is that line from Good Will Hunting:

“you dropped 150 grand on a f***in’ education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.”

The amount might be closer to 5 grand in Australia but the point remains the same.

Monday, August 16, 2010


I went back to Cairns last week to see the renovations. There was a letter for me from the university, containing my degree. A Bachelor of Arts majoring in Chinese and Philosophy.

It's taken a while to complete-four and a half years-and it didn't sink in at all. It was like finding an old birthday card that you'd forgotten about. This is probably because I didn't go to the ceremony, and for that there is a slightly longer story about how I thought I might stay for an honours year, and my dislike of ceremony in general.

So now what? Applications for the Taiwan programs don't really open until early next year. That gives me a couple of months more or less to myself. I'm going to focus on my Classical Chinese, since that's something that has pretty much been entirely neglected in my Chinese all this time. And I've been tarrying with Cantonese for a few months now, with some considerable progress, so I'll keep that up, and hopefully make a trip to HK, China and Taiwan before too long.

I'll probably write on here some more, too, keeping updates on good books and films. Speaking of which...

The Secret in Their Eyes is a brilliant film. It hit a range of emotions, and the actors brought a real depth to all of their roles.

Inception is also one I'd highly recommend. I saw it three times in two days.

Animal Kingdom should take a place amongst the very of Australian cinema. I saw it twice, the second time to gauge reactions from my friends. They all told me they'd never been so tense for such a long period in a film; this is consistent with my first viewing of it.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Where to Think and Read

I wrote a little message on facebook about how infuriating it is to be around people whispering in a library. Maybe more annoying than people talking at a normal volume. I've actually been thinking about thinking environments and reading for a little while. My thinking is something like this.

Libraries, dead quiet ones, mostly make me quite tired and bored. At least university libraries do, because they're generally populated by tired and bored students, who contribute to an ambiance of tired boredom. This is occasionally interspersed with whispering, which as I say sends me into a rage. Maybe it's because we can't help but try to pick up on what's being said.
On the other hand I had a really good time spending all day reading at the city-hall library in Hong Kong, and the National Library of Taiwan is brilliant. I should also spend more time at the State Library here in Brisbane.

A cafe can be good for thinking and reading non-fiction, stuff like Malcolm Gladwell or Nassim Taleb. I recently finished Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan, and I've been dipping into What the Dog Saw. Cafes can be noisy, but so long as the noise is a hum of conversation, I find it stimulating rather than distracting. A good place where you can come across an interesting idea, then put down the book for a minute or two to digest it.

I can only read novels at home when it's quiet. Even music can be distracting, as it may be of a different mood to the scene in the novel. It's the same with philosophy, at least the more lyrical stuff.

Strangely enough, none of the above seems to apply when I'm reading something in Chinese, possibly because it requires so much concentration that it seems to block out everything else around me.

And thinking, for me, is still best done whilst going for a walk. I wonder if these things apply to most people?