Some time ago I was looking for a decent outlining tool to take academic notes electronically, and then I got myself into Org-mode and consequently Emacs and away I went and I’ve chatted about this stuff before, but it’s only pretty recently that I’ve actually settled on a fairly complex Org-mode setup that suits my way of working. When I started out I adopted bits and pieces from all over, mainly from the excellent norang.ca doc (look at your scrollbar), but I didn’t know enough about the software and what parts are more significant than others, and I didn’t know my own working habits well enough. But I’ve got a better picture of those now and recently I started having ideas of how I could make things better. So I sat down and reworked everything and I have grown Org-mode up to my needs (crucially: not any higher).

There is a lot of stuff around online about productivity; there was a recent xkcd about the typical cynical view of all this. While I have read some of this stuff, and can see that people with less traditional working schedules than a student’s may find things like GTD allow them to make better use of their time, but in general I tend to be rather cynical (wow! what a surprise!) about it all myself because it’s wonderfully easy to read about this stuff and feel better about yourself rather than actually do whatever it is you need to do. And it’s vital to recognise that these things might have a small motivational effect (setting yourself up properly to do something means you’re more likely to do it) but they’re not going to help motivate you in general. But as I intend to write properly about soonish, I do not have issues with motivation in a big way. My current issues are more focused than that and while a lack of success does feed back into my motivation to keep going and my tendency to procrastinate, it’s secondary to the issue itself.

So why do I spend a great deal of time setting up my organisational systems? My perfectionism is a factor, and as I have said there is some small motivational boost from having a list of things to tick off, as we are all familiar with. The two main reasons for me are because I don’t trust my memory, and because I want control, and this is rather directed and specific. The first reason is self-explanatory. Org-mode allows me to tie everything together electronically and does what I can’t trust my memory to do. I am slowly getting better at taking the decision not to trust my head and to leave it free to try and figure out how to study Philosophy again, and instead let the computer keep track of pretty much everything. While it might be more romantic to have nice notebooks or the ruled refill pad that screams conscientious-and-unpretentious (you should hear the conversations I have with myself on these things), it isn’t actually as good as storing things in a system one has built oneself that one understands, a system of plain text backed up and synced between computers (not “devices”, computers). I don’t need to remember what I’m supposed to be doing because Org-mode can tell me, and I don’t need to remember what’s going on because I read my e-mails/wrote things down and pumped them back into Org-mode — anywhere in my Org files, and they get brought together and organised automatically — and it tells me what I need to know. I over-exaggerate here. I still know what I’m doing and can tell you what’s important to me this week, and whether I’m on track, and I can give you an idea of what that e-mail said about that upcoming event. But I fall back to something that is complete and tailored to suit me and my life like a glove.

My second reason is about control, and it’s about control of my own time and life in the face of the distractions that hit at us from all sides in this world of the consumption of gratifying activities to fill the hours between sleeping. I am fortunate that I am already removed from cheap social gratification, choosing quality communication with friends over constant electronic connection via phones and social networking websites, so I avoid a certain amount of banal chatter, egoism, ranking of one’s life against others etc. Not being materialist I’m not surrounded with toys of various descriptions. But the Internet beckons, oh how it beckons. There are many fascinating websites out there and one can get a great deal out of browsing around the place, but the issue for me is more specific than just spending time reading because, unless one has something else to do, that’s fine. It’s very rare that I allow my browser to distract me from working on something in this way. Instead, I find myself possessed with a need to know or to make use of pieces of knowledge on specific areas of interest for me. Perhaps this will be best illustrated by examples relating to the present: Emacs, Org-mode and Gnus feature prominently. Page with some keybindings from Emacs, not all of which I know? Must spend time absorbing them. Page with a Gnus feature that I’m not aware of (happened today with tree mode)? Must evaluate and assimilate feature into workflow. Article on typography about how one should typeset footnotes? Must see if my LaTeX templates need updating right now. Article on a philosophical topic that I have a strong opinion on? Better read it now. And so on.

All of these things are valuable. I’m pursuing the things that interest me and learning more about how others see the same subjects and that’s great, but the issue is that when one goes off down the rabbit hole for a while one hands over control of what one things is important to one’s surroundings and less conscious inclinations. There is already too much in my life, and I can’t do everything. My Org-mode setup helps me with this in two ways. Firstly, it tells me what I’ve already decided is important to do today, and it tells me the projects I currently have in progress, and it reminds me that unless I want to make a decision to change my mind, this is what I’ve committed to and this is what the real Sean wants, not the temperamental Sean possessed by the excitement of the ability to join two lines and remove the indentation or whatever. Secondly, Org-mode keeps track of interesting things for me and allows me to bring them up. Not sure if I should be reading this but don’t feel comfortable just throwing it aside, and need to get it out of the way in order to focus in on the day’s tasks? No problem, hit a few keys and store it away in my Org files, tagged so that it can be brought up in a list with a few keystrokes.

The response to this, if you don’t like it, is to talk about how a certain flexibility and spontaneity is lost when one rigs oneself up to a schedule when one doesn’t strictly need to. Productivity in the sense of ticking things off on a list of tasks that are considered good doesn’t have to come first, and if you’re at a time in your life when you can be a little more free and perhaps achieve less then you should take advantage of this and float a little more. I don’t think any flexibility goes anywhere though, it’s merely made more thoughtful. If I decide that something else is genuinely more important, running things via my Org-based system forces me to evaluate my own inclinations of the moment critically against the other things I’ve said I’ll do. I can still decide to change things up in any way I like and Org is flexible enough to make this very easy to do. But I’m back in control, which is good; saying otherwise is probably just over-romanticising life in the modern world. And secondly, I am made very unhappy if I feel I am unproductive. With Org-mode I can see my productivity, am happier and thus more productive and indeed everything else goes better.

My goal right now is to take things to the extreme by rigging myself to Org-mode in all my dealings. For the next 30 days I’m forcing myself to make it almost an obsession, so that I can reap the full benefits. Then to regain some flexibility I will be able to slack off, but hopefully I’ve have figured out what level to go to in order to gain the above-described benefits.

I’ll end with a brief description of my system, since I keep referring to it and as I say I’ve put a good deal of time and effort and thought into it lately to grow it up to my needs and ways of working and the kind of things I do. I have a number of core Org files relating to various aspects of my life; the main ones are Academic.org for degree work and related, Oxford.org for all the other stuff I do during term time (so not got much going on at the moment), the almighty TechNotes.org which contains so many notes, links and plans for computer geek stuff and then my catch-all miscellaneous Sean.org which has errands, political notes, ideas for TV shows, films, music and books to look into and the like. Deep in my directory hierarchy there are things like ~/doc/work/philos/history/Hume.org which has all my notes and tasks on Hume. It’s hard to get the balance right between how much one needs to organise and separate one’s files (an interesting blog post on this is to be found here; this is amusing by the same author), but things are made easier because Org-mode is at its heart a piece of outlining software, and outlining models how you think, so a certain amount of organisation just happens automatically as long as you remember to use the keybinding that inserts headings as well as the keys that type text.

But the bigger reason why this doesn’t matter that much is the other component of the system which is Org’s agenda view. This thing is amazing, pulling together tasks from across your Org files, arranging them according to useful metrics such as tags, scheduled dates and deadlines, adding warnings for upcoming deadlines and the like, and then pulling in appointments from either Org-mode itself or an external calendar program, birthdays and wedding anniversaries from your address book and finally it even adds results from Google Weather if you have the right elisp. The key thing I’ve done recently, perhaps, has been realising the significance of the agenda and how building one’s system and customisations around that view rather than around the Org files themselves, which organise themselves as much as is necessary, is the key to success.

The word “agenda” doesn’t do this tool justice. I have four blocks to mine, and you can view something that looks a bit like it here. At the top I have a list of the tasks I’ve marked as in progress. This has two kinds of things in it: tasks that I am actually working on right now/today, and also so-called “stuck projects”, which come out in a different colour (not so on the above-linked export, unfortunately). Below that I have a list of tasks that are waiting on responses from other people. It’s important to look at these each day to see if people need reminding or can be relied upon to just get it done, and it wouldn’t be so good to have these show up as ordinary TODOs. Below that I have my appointments/calendar events, weather, scheduled tasks, daily “habits” or things I wish to accomplish regularly and repetitively, accompanied by coloured progress charts, and then at the very bottom I have a list of all undated TODO items.

Hidden from view are items marked as SOMEDAY. This is a task that doesn’t actually need to be done, unlike a TODO, but that it would be nice to be done — this is Org keeping track of interesting things for me. I bring these up in different categories with other agenda keybindings. And last of all there is my buffer of tasks to refile. These are links and notes I have shoved into Org-mode quickly and unceremoniously and without organisation, and once per day I move them into the appropriate .org files.

Posted Sat 02 Apr 2011 11:43:00 UTC Tags:

I’m slowly migrating my tumblelog (and my blog soon too) over to PyBlosxom rather than WordPress, and this is the first post on the new installation after a harrowing six hour journey to get everything working as it should. I note that PyBlosxom itself is really easy to setup, and the vast majority of that time was spent messing about with dodgy CSS and Org-mode hacks, and the mildly painful Comments plugin.

So apologies for broken links, broken RSS feeds, and anything else that’s broken — I’m working on it.

Posted Sat 02 Apr 2011 12:59:00 UTC Tags:

Tree caught fire outside up the road; we thought it was intentional until the fire brigade showed up.

Posted Sun 03 Apr 2011 10:30:00 UTC Tags:

Ubuntu 11.10 Will Not Ship With A Classic Gnome Desktop | Web Upd8

Personally I like the look of Gnome Shell and if we ignore technical evilness associated with Ubuntu’s Unity, it looks like a more sensible way of controlling one’s desktop than the Gnome default. But the only justification for not shipping the tried-and-tested alternative is when almost no-one uses the classic desktop; this is a blatantly a ploy to force people to switch which goes against the spirit of the GNU/Linux system. And from a purely utilitarian “let’s spread Ubuntu” PoV, it’s not going to do them any good. Mac fanboys are not the target market!

(via @davidgerard)

Posted Sun 03 Apr 2011 11:44:00 UTC Tags:

Good session of old fashioned DnD (strictly speaking Pathfinder) this afternoon with Jonathan in the DM’s chair. He decided to add a sense of atmosphere by adding the inn’s blackboards to his dining room.

(photo via Ben)

Posted Sun 03 Apr 2011 17:11:00 UTC Tags:

Since September 2008 my blog has been powered by WordPress but now the time has come to move to a lighter-weight blogging platform; I’ve now started the process of moving all my posts over to PyBlosxom instead. It’ll take me a good while to do this as I’ll be doing it gradually, so until I’ve moved them all you will find the archives still available here.

Posted Sun 03 Apr 2011 19:28:00 UTC Tags:

A pill to enhance moral behaviour? | The Guardian

It is good that the title of this article refers to “moral behaviour” rather than the rather stronger and more mysterious morality, because it goes on:

But would pharmacologically-induced altruism, for example, amount to genuine moral behaviour? Guy Kahane, deputy director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics and a Wellcome Trust biomedical ethics award winner, said: “We can change people’s emotional responses but quite whether that improves their moral behaviour is not something science can answer.”

I find this quotation from an expert a little more worrying:

“Science has ignored the question of moral improvement so far, but it is now becoming a big debate,” he said. “There is already a growing body of research you can describe in these terms. Studies show that certain drugs affect the ways people respond to moral dilemmas by increasing their sense of empathy, group affiliation and by reducing aggression.”

Giving someone (or, since our society’s mental health ethics are screwed up, forcing them to have) control over their emotions when they wouldn’t otherwise have this is one thing, and if they’ve got chemicals flooding their brains that are impeding them then helping them out with that is good. It seems to me to be important to claim that we’re doing this and not that we’re doing anything to do with morality though because I reckon that by definition morality can’t be impeded by forces as powerful as drugs if it is to remain morality. I’d draw parallels with moral responsibility being thrown out the window in situations of duress.

Increasingly turning away from the ever-tempting moral relativism. Then we might characterise this sort of stuff as cutting someone off from (okay let’s go Kantian) the moral law that as a rational being they have access to. I must stress that I’m using words here that I do not have a clear meaning behind in my mind.

Posted Mon 04 Apr 2011 17:41:00 UTC Tags:

sshuttle: where transparent proxy meets VPN meets ssh

Simple way to tunnel everything over SSH when you don’t have admin access at the remote end; looks convenient.

(via ycombinator)

Posted Mon 04 Apr 2011 22:51:00 UTC Tags:

This morning I finished reading Thomas Nagel’s The View from Nowhere which was a book I was set to read as preliminary reading for studying the Ethics paper next term, but one that is a work spanning far more than just that field of philosophical endeavour. Ethics comes to the fore as something the book has a lot to say about, but this is a reflection of the author’s view of the philosophical landscape, not his choice of subject matter for the book.

The book’s goal is to expound upon our intuition that what separates humans from everything else we’ve come across is that we can conceive of the world with ourselves placed in it, taking an objective view from nowhere in particular, in addition to seeing the world more directly through our own (metaphorical) eyes, a subjective view. This isn’t to say that we have just two ways of looking at the world and we can swap between them but that we have a whole spectrum, and the onward march of humanity consists primarily in us pushing outwards in such a way that we develop new conceptions of reality in which our previous conception is a component. The first stage of this is easy to see: when we are able to consider the world with us as a component when we become self-aware, the non-self-aware self is incorporated into that conception. But we can go further as our thought expands; Nagel cites several major scientific theories where we collectively did this. We might say that most of us are not quite there yet with the likes of quantum mechanics, since it seems so alien when one first reads about it. I am wary of over-simplifying Nagel’s notion of objectivity especially considering his thoughts about present-day scientism, but hopefully this gives you an idea of what he’s trying to capture.

For Nagel, this ability to take an objective view, a view from nowhere in particular, must be recognised if we are to get anywhere with a wide range of philosophical investigations. The book begins with the philosophy of mind, moving to epistemology and then into value, ethics, a little political theory and finally Nagel braves the territory of the very meanings of life, birth and death. I got very little out of the philosophy of mind because the book was writing at the level of academic philosophy of mind which I’ve never really studied, but I found the rest of the book to be very accessible and engaging. I’ll write a little about some of the many philosophical and meta-philosophical thoughts I’ve had surrounding my reading.

First of all my mention of bravery above, and bravery that pays off. Academic philosophy is scorned for not tackling “the big questions” and such but that’s because they’re big because they’re very hard, and one cannot even begin to approach such a question without a substantial amount of background material with which to approach it with. I am not suggesting that there is a philosophical elite who are entitled to respond to ultimate questions more than anyone else is, only that someone cannot make a serious response without doing a lot of other work first which he might then seek to apply to the question that has so much importance attached to it by ordinary people — there may be multiple such approaches, but none of them are quick and easy. Philosophers do have one advantage here and that is that they realise how hard things are, so they don’t make attempts that aren’t going to do much more than satisfy hopeless philosophical romantics such as myself. Nagel’s general thesis throughout is that the subjective and objective views are irreconcilable within us where such a reconciliation is one that would remove a deep sense of absurdity, and in the final chapter of the book he explains how this forces us to live in absurdity, and this has implications when we try to think about what the meaning of life might be. But he couldn’t have made this approach without a huge amount of work done to show how what these two viewpoints within us are, and how they come into so much conflict. It is refreshing to see a philosopher doing this because that’s what philosophy undergraduates often want to see, but I do not mean to suggest by this that anyone who doesn’t end up talking about these things is any less worthy of philosophical acclaim. It’s hard, and only certain things lead one up to taking a shot at it.

Another thought that I would like to take the time to write about more fully some time, is that philosophers who are not merely competitive maths-with-words-types who want acclaim for how cleverly they analysed what ‘be’ means, are in fact aiming at these questions all the time. Now, most philosophers would scoff at the suggestion that they are really in it to investigate the meaning of life because that little phrase — ‘the meaning of life’ — is loaded up with so many cultural and psychological connotations that it’s not really in the remit of a subject aiming for rigour, clarity and elegance across thought; a widening of one’s view of the possible and the banishment of bad habits of thought.[1] But these questions are real and wide-ranging, even if it’s hard to phrase them while remaining fairly societally neutral. What do I know; am I free; how shall I live?

The philosopher, then, is one who cannot accept the dogmatic answers to these questions that civil society provides. Religion, the quasi-religion we see in modern scientism (more later), a pursuit of Mathematics as the purest form of mental activity, some concept of humanism that frees us in the name of love — the philosopher is unable to accept these, and falls back on the best thing remaining: analytical thought. There is a pervading scepticism that cannot be dismissed but around this we try to wrap an understanding of why it’s so hard. As I say I shall try to come back this more fully some other time and describe what led me to this sort of thinking, because I am concerned that it is rather dogmatic itself.

The final meta-philosophical point[2] that I have been thinking about is a bit more plain. An attack on the pursuit of philosophy is that there is no progress, and you get two sorts of responses from undergraduates about this. From others one gets told that there is progress, that we know more about language now than we did before and we’re a lot better at writing our philosophy. We’ve learned, they say, from science’s success and incorporate some of that way of thinking and that worldview into our philosophical thought too. My response is generally that philosophy is for understanding rather than answering questions; trying to understand why it’s so hard to decide what we know or rather what we should give our ascent to; why it’s so difficult to decide how we should lead our lives. Scepticism about this doesn’t make that much sense, aside from an important acceptance of the fact that you may be thoroughly mistaken or underdeveloped, because if you’re thinking about what we know or can be sure about then you’re begging the question. In order to gain this so-called understanding you’re going to need to propose direct solutions and build systems as philosophers do, and that’s entirely consistent with this view so long as there’s no real expectation that one is going to be successful, in a simple and direct sense of the word ‘successful’.

But I end up slipping into making the pursuit of philosophy little more than self-development, an activity centred around the self’s improvement based on an assumption that the philosophical life is the best life for a human being to flourish. I’m now starting to think that I don’t need to say all this because philosophical progress is a far more open question, because of the simple and obvious fact that we haven’t actually been doing it very long. In The View from Nowhere Nagel challenges the conceited nature of humanity over and over, and I am thinking that this may apply to my own conception of the subject in a very strong way. But now I get led back in a direction of philosophy actually achieving something akin to truth as opposed to instead improving those who undertake it, and this is definitely not the way to go. I don’t seem to be able to shake loose of my pre-philosophical societal bonds of progress, success and achievement.

I’d like to mention two further aspects of the book that I’ve been considering lately, which are in fact interrelated. The first is a rejection of the simple relativism which permeates our thoughts concerning morality and more generally our thoughts about value. This is the general attempt to reduce all these things down to biological processes and preferences; pleasure and pain. It doesn’t work. As a citizen of the 21st century I am drawn to these just as much as the next man, but the more I read the less plausible the accounts seem. They seem to gain much of their persuasiveness from the hegemony of Science but they break down over certain issues and so I am trying hard now not to reject theories many throw out as outdated. I’m talking things like Virtue Theory and Kant’s deontological system, to give a few classic examples. I am not in a position to present any of these arguments, and am just trying to express a new reluctance to ride along with Hume as one is so often tempted to do.

Another resource to draw upon from The View from Nowhere is Nagel’s attack on prevailing scientism concentrated in reductive physicalism. The pursuit of Science is able to flesh out our current level of objectivity but aside from quasi-philosophical advances made by the very greatest thinkers — maybe Einstein and Schrödinger should be reclaimed by the Academy’s historians — it can’t advance it further, and yet the modern scientist or ‘rational intellectual’ treats science as a be-all-and-end-all far, far too often. Not only can Science not take us up onto new levels of objectivity, it is also thoroughly incapable of giving an account of the subjective view, because it only looks at the objective world. Talking about science providing explanations of how the brain works and such like will not help because again that’s only the objective world. Stimulating my brain in a computer so I live a sensory life exactly equivalent to Barack Obama’s will not allow me to access his subjective world view, it’ll only expand my objective one a little bit. His subjective view remains inaccessible to me via Science.

But the subjective view is real, is a part of reality, and Science can’t capture it, so we must refrain from talking about Science in such a way as to suggest that it is our key to unlocking reality or anything of that nature, because it isn’t capable of that. That is not to suggest that it should not be pursued or disregarded, only that it should not be idolised in the way many do today, consciously and openly or otherwise. This is perhaps the main thesis of the first half of the book, and I cringe at how poorly I’ve expressed it here.

It is interesting how I feel a distaste referring to the book, as I did above, as a resource to draw upon for specific arguments to support a view I already hold, yet I know that I would not suggest there was anything wrong with a defender of the status quo drawing upon a work for methods of argumentation to support the other side, in a similar manner. The power of the received opinion. I should read On Liberty again.

I’ve put a few nice quotations from the book on my books page, but I note that these are only from the first half or so.

[1] Paraphrased with D. Dennett in his Elbow Room

[2] You might say that philosophy is the one subject where meta-philosophy is a branch of the subject, rather than a superset of it.

Posted Tue 05 Apr 2011 13:31:00 UTC Tags:

My sister just got home and showed me a letter signed by eight headteachers from across Sheffield, that was presumably sent out to all those schools, that describes how a combination of government spending cuts and inflation means they are going to have to cut their offerings to sixth form pupils. The numbers:

The present Government has decided to reduce the level of financial support by about 20% over the next 3 financial years. A 3% cut Will be made from April 2011 followed by further cuts in 2012 and 2013 … [l]ike every school in Sheffield we are planning for budget cuts arising from inflation, increased pension and national insurance contributions.

The staggering thing is what this is actually going to mean. It’s not an issue in some parts of this city that they’re cutting enrichment, careers stuff etc. — rich parents will fill the gap. And when times are tight maybe Sixth Forms should stop offering subjects very few take. But

Some classes may be taught in less time with alternative methods of delivery, including the increased use of ICT, being used … [f]or 2011–2012 High Storrs is proposing to maintain Y12 AS Subjects and Y13 A2 Subjects at 5 hours tuition per subject. We hope that we can maintain this in the longer term as this is the tuition time that we feel students need in order to be successful.

which implies very clearly that there is the threat of losing lesson time. Yes: the government have decided that teaching people full time 16–18 is no longer affordable. This is deeply sad, not only because it’s going to handicap so many, but because it’s something very difficult to claw back. Look at how well they tick boxes and pass exams with the virtual teaching they receive! Why spend the money on reinstating actual teaching?

The purpose of the letter is clearly to get parents and angry older siblings and indeed pupils themselves to write to MPs and kick up a fuss; the tone throughout is that the headteachers don’t want this, and that the letter is their attempt to turn the tide. Look how they note the potential loss of lesson time in such a non-specific way to engender anger. I don’t blame them and I wish that there was something that could be done, but it doesn’t feel like there is — look how little was achieved in trying to regain EMA. Come on Labour…

Posted Wed 06 Apr 2011 14:39:00 UTC Tags:

I went to An Evening with John Bercow tonight at one of the local universities and found it very interesting to hear his explanations of how some aspects of the UK’s representative democracy works, and about the things he wants to change and about the outreach programs he leads to bring parliament into relevance in people’s lives.

It is important not to judge someone who you are only hearing their own opinion of and it’s equally important that you don’t judge more favourably because they’re eloquent and amiable, though that’s not a reason not to appreciate this. I think that Mr Bercow used humour when he didn’t need to, and this brought things down in a way that wasn’t needed: we would all have gone away with respect for him regardless of whether he’d made us laugh, and there is a trivialising effect by opening himself up to the accusation from the likes of me that he was merely playing the crowd — which he wasn’t.

Posted Wed 06 Apr 2011 21:33:00 UTC Tags:

10,000-core Linux supercomputer built in Amazon cloud | Network World

Cloud computing finally did something really cool :D

Posted Wed 06 Apr 2011 21:43:00 UTC Tags:

I’ve started working on a new website for SilentFlame; thus far we have

  • old content moved over;
  • site is not desperate attempt to grasp customers anymore since it doesn’t work and silentflame.com is a domain with many purposes;
  • site is now running on a different box to SilentFlame’s customers’ sites, so it will stay up as a point of contact if the main box goes down; and
  • new site is done using Org-mode.

So far though - we don’t have standards compliance logos that don’t lie; and - at least one of SilentFlame’s websites has broken.

It’s as if cPanel is throwing a hissy fit over no longer hosting the main website. Trying to figure out why, since the DNS is correct.

Posted Thu 07 Apr 2011 17:44:00 UTC Tags:

GNOME 3 has been released:

GNOME 3 appears to me to be a very positive step forward. Workspaces, taskbars etc. don’t make sense to newcomers, and the Gnome Shell way of doing things looks a lot more intuitive to me. I admit I haven’t actually used GNOME 3 and won’t be doing so since I have a highly-tuned environment in place already, so perhaps my opinion isn’t worth much, but I will be introducing GNOME Shell to newbies and not-so-newbies alike with a great deal of enthusiasm.

There’s stupid graphical swishing though, which is going to stop this from being as portable as it should be — see the Ars article for a summary of the issues.

Posted Thu 07 Apr 2011 18:08:00 UTC Tags:

http://www.smbc-comics.com/comics/20110408.gif

http://www.smbc-comics.com/comics/20110408after.gif

I wish I was going to be a future mathematician; this is so true.

(source SMBC)

Posted Fri 08 Apr 2011 07:31:00 UTC Tags:

The most perfect philosophy of the natural kind only staves off our ignorance a little longer. —Hume, Enquiry

Posted Fri 08 Apr 2011 08:36:00 UTC Tags:

I’ve started playing Minecraft again, with a few differences. First of all I’m straight-up cheating because I’m versioning my save files, so I can roll back any time I like, and this is a game that is designed not to let you undo your mistakes. But the reason for this is that I am sick of creepers wrecking my stuff, basically; while I am occasionally careless and I lose a load of diamond into the lava, this is rare and what is far more common is that a creeper sneaks up and blows up on the surface, and this frustrates me because it obviously messes up stuff I’ve built but also messes up the really cool natural land formations. There’s still an element of risk to the game because I’m only saving like this after completing a task or a mining session or whatever, so I can still lose progress by being forced to rollback because I haven’t checked in for a while.

I’m also being rather more industrious. I’m not expanding naturally by doing what I normally do: dig a little cave, flesh it out with furniture and then dig a shaft straight downwards at the back, and then one upwards and build a lookout tower or something on top of the hill. Instead I’m planning my digging to get resources rather than to find caves, because I’m more interested in building cool stuff on the surface now. My mine is separate to my house: I didn’t mine for ages when starting, building up a wooden house with a bed (meaning no random monsters all over the place which is win) on the first few days and then only after being well-established finally starting the hunt for coal. And now I’m strip mining for cobblestone and diamond.

The world I’ve got is really cool-looking and I’m looking forward to linking things up with cart networks and then building massive towers and castles and suchlike, gradually.

Here’s a quick screenshot of my woodland retreat. Currently digging up a sunken garden to the (arbitrary) north linked to this by a tunnel.

returningtominecraft.png

Finding these on YouTube last night in this order made me laugh:

My EPIC Self-Harvesting Cactus Farm (690+ cacti/hour)

Cactus Farm 5184 Cactus Per Hour

Minecraft cacti farm 43200 cacti per hour

Posted Sat 09 Apr 2011 09:39:00 UTC Tags:

I was searching up information on the BNP arrest over the weekend (seriously, we’re arresting someone for this in the UK? rather surprised at this — and, unsurprisingly, watch the BNP take full advantage, grr) and got this results page from Google; take a look at those newspaper websites: aside from a logo change, they’ve all got exactly the same article and site design. I wonder how far the empire extends?

Posted Mon 11 Apr 2011 08:47:00 UTC Tags:

Org-mode can export to the excellent FreeMind mindmap maker, which exports to a huge number of formats; here’s the export menu:

?freemindmenu.png

The power of this is that you can use Org-mode’s intuitive and simple syntax to export to navigable maps that can then be shared online. Here’s an example of the simple markup:

  ,* Major modes
  ,** Org-mode
  ,** Markdown mode
  ,** php-mode
  ,** python.el
  ,** python-mode.el
  ,* Applications
  ,** Gnus
  ,*** bbdb
  ,** ERC

Click here to see the foldable, clickable export.

I intend to use this for Philosophy revision next year.

Posted Mon 11 Apr 2011 11:22:00 UTC Tags:

Very tempted to merge my blogs back together, keeping the title “Notes from the Library” for both since “Intellectual Scribblings” is getting a bit old.

The reasons for the split:

  • Different stylings — titles are more important on my ‘proper’ blog, dates are more important over here.
  • Some people want to read my blog but don’t care about all the junk I post on here.

However

  • I believe PyBlosxom will let me have different post styles for different categories, which means I could put my blog under /writing/diary, /writing/soapbox etc., eliminating the templating differences.
  • Similarly I can direct people to /writing/ who just want blog stuff.
  • PyBlosxom’s strict categorising feels more powerful than two separate blogs.
  • I often post content on the ‘wrong’ blog anyway.
  • The separation probably confuses more people than it aids.

/Postscript 13/iv/2011:/ This has now been done.

Posted Mon 11 Apr 2011 11:37:00 UTC Tags:

I have a proper homepage again, which is nice, and it has a photo of me on it. The sitemap is more prominent on the homepage. I’ve also taken some time to strip out all the junk I had up that was unfinished and uninteresting, consolidating pages together.

Posted Mon 11 Apr 2011 22:40:00 UTC Tags:

Another Way to View the “Decline” of HN | Data Addict

Try to ignore the lashings of words like “startups” and “data” and this is an interesting post on online communities. I don’t spend time on news sites like Reddit and Hacker News but come across them in searches from time to time (and I do follow HN on Twitter) and read the comments, and HN’s atmosphere generally impresses me.

Posted Wed 13 Apr 2011 08:12:00 UTC Tags:

Wrote a quick Emacs Lisp function in the past half hour that centralises the current buffer on display and adds large left and right margins in the form of empty buffers; I find it easier to write and read when the content is in the middle of the screen (indeed I’m using it right now to write this post). I have it bound to C-c c.

;; centralise window for easier viewing

(defun swhitton/centralise-current-window ()
  "Make editing window 95 cols wide and centre it in the frame
for easier reading and writing"
  (interactive)
  (delete-other-windows)
  (split-window-horizontally)
  (split-window-horizontally)
  (shrink-window-horizontally (- (window-width) (/ (- (frame-width) 97) 2)))
  (switch-to-buffer "*blank*")
  (toggle-read-only 1)
  (setq mode-line-format nil)
  (other-window 1)
  (shrink-window-horizontally (- (window-width) 95))
  (other-window 1)
  (switch-to-buffer "*blank*")
  (other-window -1))

(global-set-key (kbd "C-c c") 'swhitton/centralise-current-window)

Here’s a live action shot:

?centralisewindow.png

Back to work.

Edit 31/v/2011: Updated to improved version.

Posted Wed 13 Apr 2011 09:25:00 UTC Tags:

Let us suppose, that nature has bestowed on the human race such profuse abundance of all external convenience, that, without any uncertainty in the event, without any care or industry on our part, every individual finds himself fully provided with whatever his most voracious appetites can want, or luxurious imagination wish or desire. His natural beauty, we shall suppose, surpasses all acquired ornaments: The perpetual clemency of the seasons renders useless all cloaths or covering: The raw herbage affords him the most delicious fare; the clear fountain, the richest beverage. No laborious occupation require: No tillage: No navigation. Music, poetry, and contemplation form his sole business: Conversation, mirth, and friendship his sole amusement.

It seems evident, that, in such a happy state, every other social virtue would flourish, and receive tenfold encrease; but the cautious, jealous virtue of justice would never once have been dreamed of. For what purpose make a partition of goods, where every one has already more than enough? Why give rise to property, where there annot possibly be any injury? Why call this object mine, when, upon seizing of it by another, I need but stretch out my hand to possess myself of what is equally valuable? Justice, in that case, being totally USELESS, would be an idle ceremonial, and could never possibly have place in the catalogue of virtues. —Hume, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals 3.1

Posted Wed 13 Apr 2011 11:28:00 UTC Tags:

After Jonathan pointed out that a list of recent blog-style posts at the top of my blog will allow those who aren’t interested in the tumblelog content to filter out my writing, I’ve merged my two blogs as planned. Jonathan has also suggested some visual improvements to my blog’s CSS.

Going to have to spend a little time recategorising things; under /writing/ I don’t need many categories at all as I consider that stuff not to be a resource in the way that some of my tumblelog posts can be (somebody e-mailed me recently to say they’d made use of some ERC code of mine found on my tumblelog!). So I’ll go through all my current posts soonish and then continue with the migration of content from the old blogs.

Merging the git repositories of the two blogs was pretty painless:

git remote add notes ../notes
git fetch notes
git merge notes/master
git remote rm notes
Posted Wed 13 Apr 2011 14:11:00 UTC Tags:

Today’s Guardian has one of Balliol’s History finalists on the front:

Oxford University diversity row: ‘Grades aren’t enough’ | The Guardian

Oxford University aren’t happy with this and for once the students’ union is with them:

Ignore the politicians: for the real story about admissions and applicants from minority groups, go to <http://bit.ly/hYvGvS>. —@ousunews

Sure, Oxford’s access is far from perfect and is maybe too reliant on students (the Target Schools scheme is an effective approach). But it’s really not Oxford’s fault that there is such a low proportion of ethnic minority students, it’s the fault of our divided education system with its rich private schools full of white teenagers who get coached in Oxbridge admissions. The situation in Oxford is reflective of the country’s unequal education provision.

Posted Wed 13 Apr 2011 17:02:00 UTC Tags:

London Met Philosophy Dept. to close down. Greenwich philosophy dept. to close down. Cuts destroying humanities.

— distressing. Visited their Twitter feed and found

Einstein on common sense: ‘A deposit of prejudices laid down in the mind before you reach 18’. Nothing to do with politics but quite cool.

which has everything to do with politics if you ask me.

(via @Seanoftheshire)

Posted Tue 19 Apr 2011 21:15:00 UTC Tags:

The Chernobyl deniers use far too simple a measure of radiation risk | Comment is free, the Guardian

Just read this. My immediate thought is that surely an average dose is the right way to go when we’re talking about risks to civilians who get an average rather than swallowing alpha emitters? But then this is probably wrong because there are alpha emitters in the air from disaster zones flowing into them?

What this shows is that this debate is ridiculously difficult to have (and also that I can’t remember any of my A-level Physics).

Posted Wed 20 Apr 2011 08:15:00 UTC Tags:

Just finished reading Hume’s Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals which is a good overall flavour of Hume’s position on ethics. I found though that it’s very repetitive and spends a lot of time illustrating the same point over and over before moving on, which can be frustrating when the references are for another age.

The interesting thing was how I continually found myself thinking of the Humeans in my A-level philosophy class, the main voice being someone now off studying natural sciences. I imagined the cool, confident agreement from middle-class intellectuals who see Hume as putting to bed all the major questions with his simple appeal to agreeableness to individuals and utility to mankind for ethics, and to the principle that we just can’t help but use induction in epistemology. It justifies the material aspects of their lives and desire to keep pushing society in the direction of a bunch of secular humanists practising natural science and being happy with that.

At the end of the book we see the characters of Pascal and Diogenes brought out and described as being much admired in their ages yet being very opposite in their views. Hume calls them out as exceptions that we can’t consider in common morality, with Pascal showing the excesses of religious superstition and Diogenes of what he calls ‘philosophical enthusiasm’. I would like to know more about Hume’s opinion of both of these. I suspect he’d see me as a victim of philosophical enthusiasm.

Posted Wed 20 Apr 2011 11:51:00 UTC Tags:

I recently discovered that my long term savings account, which is where I put things like 50% of the money I earned with my part-time job in the sixth form, had dropped to 0% interest (or thereabouts) because I hadn’t touched it for long enough. It seems they require you to go in and change things up every so often, so I did this today and I now have four(!) separate accounts with Santander. Seeing as I recently discovered I have an old savings account in France with a few euros in it that I am now trying to close, that brings my total number of bank accounts to eight (inc. SilentFlame’s). Yeah. Shame all these accounts don’t have very much money in them!

One of these four new accounts is a bond, and this reminds me of a bond I saw when I was last doing this organisation two years ago before I left for university at 5%, or maybe even 6%. A few weeks later everything crashed and burned and so I’ll get nothing like that now and so I feel annoyed with myself for losing out on the chance of 2% extra interest or whatever. But this feeling is so stupid. The fact I have savings at all makes me more fortunate than many other students, and on the other hand if I had superrich parents I’d probably have more savings earning piles of interest seeing me through my degree, which I don’t have either.

What I’m trying to say is that money, especially long term savings, has to be seen as functional. So long as I am able to lead my life and those savings I do have are not languishing doing absolutely nothing, then everything is fine. I would have thought that I would have found this easy to accept because I am so unmaterialistic, but I do end up feeling weird about not getting that 5% or whatever from time to time. But now it’s locked away in accounts with no card or even passbook (just a piece of paper) and I can forget about it again and get on with things, which is good.

You might ask why I save at all. The answer is because I want to be a humanities graduate student in a few years time and that is going to be painful in terms of how little gvmt support there will be. This is also the reason why I live as minimally as I can so that I have some student loan left over at the end of the year to put into savings and since that is basically 0% interest, try to make some money out of. Urgh I hate capitalism.

Posted Wed 20 Apr 2011 15:31:00 UTC Tags:

I’ve hit ‘pay now’ and so I might as well admit it on here, since my unwillingness to spend money will make me see this thing through: I’ve just bought some trainers for running. I plan to follow the famous Couch-to-5K training plan which is reputed to get you fit no matter what. I don’t know how unfit or not I am so I’ll trust the article’s suggestion to go pretty easy.

Why am I doing this? Well, atm the only exercise I get is walking very quickly around Oxford. Despite doing this about four or five times a day for anything from ten to twenty minutes, it’s not much, and so for general health and fitness I should do more. Why do I suddenly care about being fit through exercise? Aside from being a Good Thing in the long term, in the more immediate future I would like more mental and physical energy. This is not the solution to all my current issues but perhaps it will help. And why running? Because I like being up and about very early in the morning and I don’t like the idea of a man-made gym, and I have no interest in actual sports.

Shoe-buying was a bit of a minefield. I have never owned any trainers, and a shop assistant assured me the only solution was shoes priced above £100, which is obviously ridiculous. The Internet to the rescue, having me wet my feet. I am still rather unsure because it’s hard to judge how likely one is to destroy one’s knees by wearing cheap shoes (I bought some priced at £40 ‘reduced’ to £20) with lots of conflicting information out there. So we’ll see; if this goes well I can upgrade.

Posted Thu 21 Apr 2011 12:27:00 UTC Tags:

Just finished a marathon of the final four episodes of Dr Who series 5, the most recent, and so now I have only the 2010 Christmas Special to watch before being fully prepared for the return of the show this weekend. There are a large number of David Tennant episodes I’ve missed, such as all those specials a few years ago, though.

How does this show capture so? The power of the stories and characters within them? Their force? It’s quite different from so much else in that it gets pretty much everyone in. The stories are simple, and yet so not simple. I don’t get it.

?drwhos5.jpg

(picture from the BBC via the Telegraph)

Posted Fri 22 Apr 2011 00:11:00 UTC Tags:

AWS is down: Why the sky is falling | justinsb’s posterous

This is a really interesting read. There are two sides to the cloud computing lark as I see it, though I’ve not seen the distinction drawn by anyone else myself: firstly there is the really dangerous idea that users should store their data online with various providers who are probably using the second part of cloud computing but who don’t have to be, which is really bad because it takes away control over something that is increasingly important in our lives. But secondly there is the idea of using elastic virtual instances over traditional always-on servers that sit idle half the time; it’s more efficient and environmentally friendly.

The problem is that AWS doesn’t really have much competition in the latter atm which is why it going down brings the web with it which is bad. I think that this also shows that traditional websites offering information should definitely keep running their own webservers; such sites at ten times more important than Web 2.0 and its friends and need to remain up.

Posted Fri 22 Apr 2011 09:26:00 UTC Tags:

I’m back in Oxford but this time it’s different, because the usual effect of being able to do masses more work, that we all tend to feel, just isn’t present; indeed, quite the opposite seems to have occurred in that I feel far less able to knuckle down as I’ve managed to do pretty successfully over the holiday. In fact it’s one big oscillation between quantity and quality, I reckon, and I’m at the worst part of it right now. Let’s go through some discoveries from counselling last term and how the vac went, and how I now find myself.

The first thing is that the main outcome of the sessions I had last term (one more remains in a couple of weeks time) is that I now have a much more honed grasp of what my issue actually is in practical terms, or at least, I know where in my life it is even if I don’t know much about it (if I did I’d be closer to dealing with it). Say I’m reading some piece of philosophy; a chapter of a book or an article. Suppose I’ve just got to the end of the introductory paragraphs which I can go through swiftly because it’s outlining the base material the debate is based around, as one does in philosophy writing, and now we get the first challenging sentence. Up to this point I’m doing fine, but now comes the collapse because I immediately give up on multiple different levels. In the physical world I lean back in my chair and take a deep breath and look at the ceiling; this is easily recovered from because I can lean forward again. However the psychological surrender is essentially permanent from that point on, and the rest of the reading is going to be tortuous as I find myself totally unable to regain the focus I had. I’m not entirely clear about what then happens, because I do still achieve something, however small it is. And I imagine there is some kind of mixture of similar moments of surrender and minor recoveries in what follows; it’s not a once-per-day thing. So the counsellor has helped me narrow things down, which I appreciate, but actually stopping this from happening is something that no-one can help me with that I have to try and figure out for myself.

The vac then. This was a huge upcoming challenge all of last term, the challenge of setting a schedule and sticking to it and getting revision done. There was also the hope that with so much uninterrupted working I might be able to get a better grasp of my issue in order to tackle it, but that hasn’t happened; I gained some understanding of how I work best during the day but this was peripheral. When you factor in things like how hard all Oxford students find it to work at home during vacs, though, I think I achieved a great deal because I consistently worked for about five hours every single day when averaged out (despite the plan being six), which is far more than I ever have before, and in the rest of my time I worked hard on my various vac projects and achieved a great many things. So in one sense it was the most productive vac ever and I’m trying to be proud of this.

Inevitably my next line is a comment on how little I actually achieved. On the philosophy side I read most of my vac reading but at the cost of so very many hours, and indeed, I spend a whole week of working hours reading for and writing an essay (that got knocked off the end of last term) that wasn’t especially good or better for having had that much time poured into it. So things were essentially as they were during term — at least, I suppose, there’s been no regression. On the Maths side I got a lot of notes prepared for the core topics, but at a cost of missing out several lecture courses completely. I think it is fair to say that a big reason for this is due to already being behind on my own personal schedule for the year due to Christmas; there is no way that could be recovered from entirely. It’s also important to note how difficult it is to judge what position one is in with regard to Maths because moments of consolidation tend to leap you forward, moments only possible after lots of work, and because I was simply going through material in very careful detail as I tend to do for Maths revision, no such moments were forthcoming. This comment is based on my experiences last year with how much things came together during Trinity revision, not during Easter. But at the same time, as I was sorting through the work I haven’t done and sorting it all into folders yesterday (would have done this weeks ago but left my hole punch in Oxford for the whole vac!), I realised just how much there is that I really needed to have done by now I haven’t done. I should be so much more comfortable with the material.

A combination of thoughts here have now left me with a great sense of hopelessness: the fact that on getting back to Oxford I am not now working very effectively as I am used to, even for a short burst of a period; the realisation that with the amount of stuff I am not on top of, unless my judgement of where I am is off and it probably is but I’m not convinced of that: these two things leave everything seeming hopeless, and this feeds back into finding the work I am now trying to do very difficult. I do not have my work ethic for the term established with my tutors yet; I do not have goals in place because I do not know what is realistic and my natural assumption from that point is that very little is realistically achievable.

The feeling is pretty terrible. It’s crunch time for my dreams. Over the summer I will be working hard on the neglected philosophy side of my degree; neglected by my present slowness and also by the fact that I have exams in maths this year and none in philosophy. I will also be doing the maths I need as prerequisites for the third year maths courses I intend to do. Then next year I have a chunk of easy maths, a smallish chunk of hard maths, and lots and lots of philosophy, and it’s all then examined. If we assume that all this is successful and achieved and I go into the third year fighting fit then I can do pretty well, but I am no genius and there is no way that my third year, 80% of my degree, can carry me to getting a first. So I need a decent 2:1 from the 20% I am doing this year — in easier work than next year, too — in order to get that first in the end, but now this seems totally inaccessible to me. And without a first everything I then want to do stops being possible, especially in the crunched up humanities environment the government is sliding us all down into. So I’m left with this sense of hopelessness.

The irony is just how much my enthusiasm for philosophy has grown over the past three or four months. Both its value in my worldview and how much I enjoy the non-painful parts of studying it have climbed yet higher, but I’m unable to access it all.

So, what to do from here. Things are always better once term itself gets going again, and I have an exciting four weeks. I’ll be studying the Ethics paper more intensively than I usually do philosophy papers in my course and I’ll be doing Number Theory, which I really like the sound of, and Multivariable Calculus which I don’t but both of these courses are reputed to be pretty easy and this breath of fresh air will make things more enjoyable. If I can forget that I then have four weeks of damage-control revision after that, it will be a great month, especially with the improvements I made to my personal organisation system over the vac, which will keep my life running more smoothly and thus pleasanter. But right now, this week, I am being dragged down by a hopelessness that I just can’t shake.

Posted Fri 22 Apr 2011 12:22:00 UTC Tags:

I’ve realised that some of my writing habits have changed up since the major improvements I’ve made to my web site (inc. blog) have gone through which has made me finally happy with my site once more. I’m being a lot more concise and writing less without then feeling like I’ve missed much of importance out, which is good, because an ability to judge what is important leads to better writing. I’m also trying less hard to write pretty sentences because it doesn’t work very well for me anyway and I’m increasingly losing interest in such things. Overall I’m being less perfectionist which is good; this blog will give me a better picture of myself which I can reflect on.

Posted Fri 22 Apr 2011 12:29:00 UTC Tags:

I have a distinct memory of walking along Carterknowle Road with my sister and father many years ago attempting to get my sister to get outside herself by asking herself the question: why am I living this life rather than any other? This is something I am sure we have all done to ourselves and others many times. In fact there is a bit in The View from Nowhere where Thomas Nagel describes it and expresses his discomfort. It is a deeply unsettling feeling that is very unpleasant to experience.

The thing is that I’m getting it multiple times per day at the moment and am finding it harder and harder to shake. I’m sure it’ll pass.

This /scraps category should encourage me to shove stuff up without the pretension of categorising it under /philosophy — this is also why I have /writing/thoughts rather than /writing/philosophy for my own stuff, whereas /philosophy is for stuff I come across from others.

Posted Fri 22 Apr 2011 12:36:00 UTC Tags:

Higher Order Truths about Chmess | Daniel Dennett

I reckon this is right but we must not be too eager to use this criticism as a stick to beat the establishment with as so many do.

Posted Fri 22 Apr 2011 15:27:00 UTC Tags:

?lastdaysofsocratescover.jpg I have just finished reading Phaedo, the last dialogue in the famous collection The Last Days of Socrates from Penguin Classics. In this dialogue we see Socrates in the period immediately prior to his death, and in the dying itself. I’ve been reading through this whole book gradually over a good period of time, and it’s been a strange experience, because it has me thinking harder than ever yet still wanting something else. There are a great deal of nerves involved in finding out how much my hero (Soc.) agrees with me, which isn’t particularly sensible because one is faced with the constant task of disentangling Plato Plato and Socrates Plato. In general though I have been surprised at how far the platonic Socrates is willing to push things that I claim to hold, but that, presumably due to the constant pressure from others, I maintain a lingering belief that I’ll grow out of at some point. For example Socrates’ utter disregard for the body which verges on not even bothering to take care of it at all — I’m not sure if he would quite say this but I am confident that he wouldn’t decry anyone who did disregard it even more than he.

The way in which Plato (that’s what I’ll use from now on I think) maintains philosophical analysis while weaving in what we would now probably just shelve as mysticism, presumably only of interest to classicists, says to me just how much we seem to have lost in our various drives towards the liberal scientific worldview. He paints a hugely dramatic picture of something akin to the Greek cosmology — though I don’t know enough of the latter to say how closely it compares — but is careful to note that he’s not speaking literally, and somehow still getting at something that is supposed to be literally true. While there is surely an element of Plato the masterful writer at play here that shapes my admiration of his argumentation, the intellectual honesty never goes away, either: Socrates’ arguments are all challenged (aside from the very last, for he is about to die, which I can forgive) and scrutinised and the dialectic never stops. Yet there is all this mysticism and analogy. This reminds me of a comment from a Kant lecturer last term who said that Plato’s infamous theory of the Forms was not a solution to a problem, merely a way of expressing the philosophical problem of universals itself and inviting debate. I am left feeling that there is a huge mass of powerful thought here that is inaccessible to me because I am constrained by the modern hegemony. If I am able to appreciate these texts I’m going to need to work even harder to break out of it, because I can feel the urge to ridicule holding me back from reaping from a powerful new viewpoint. Most arrogantly, I suggest that this has got something to do with why no-one around me chooses to study any ancient philosophy as part of their degrees; I now find myself feeling fortunate that I am not quite so firmly chained to the wall of the cave.

Another particular thing that caught my eye which I should like to investigate further is a brief discussion about not giving up on argument at 89d–90e. Socrates describes becoming ‘misologic’, in the way that we become misanthropic, when we hear the frustrating, eristic arguments of quasi-intellectuals, and urges us not to give up because the problem is with us, and our inability to argue properly and resist being convinced by things we shouldn’t be, not with the arguments themselves because there is a Truth out there and we can get at it. This is where I most feel my modernity flaring up, or something like it; in modern times we might be deeply arrogant about what humanity is capable of but we tend to try and resist saying things like ‘there is a an eternal and permanent Truth’. A tutor of mine thinks that it is something like this in Plato’s thought that has wrecked havoc upon the whole of western thought since, and that if Heraclitus had the place in history Plato does, we would have been off on a much better foot. He says that Plato has us looking for permanence but that it is only in the flux of Heraclitus that we will find what we seek.[1]

There’s a massive amount here for me to think about and so much more that I have no access to at the moment but that I would like access to. I think it’s moments like this that lead me to conclude that my interest in philosophy only continues to rise despite my difficulties with studying it continuing, because this desperation to do more of it comes to me more and more frequently, but with far more surety and conceit in what I will find, most days, than today. Indeed, after writing this post, my puzzlement about the greatness of these dialogues has mostly gone. Before, I was half-puzzled because I couldn’t point at what was making me feel for them so, but now I am assured. Now I too blend some kind of mysticism in and find myself wanting to see myself as merely riding on a literary wave that will subside. This is probably correct, but it is important not to forget just how much remains once this wave has subsided.

My present standard reply to the question of why I study this subject is because it is thrilling, but it’s also because of an all-consuming need to study it that takes the form of utter disbelief in how anyone can go through a life without continually enquiring philosophically; aha, the alternate translation ‘the unexamined life is not liveable for a human being’ might apply here? I’ll leave things there for now and hope to have something more concrete when I have unwrapped myself from modernity a little more to get into ancient philosophy to a point when I can legitimately start to apply the blade of analysis, to subject it all to intellectual scrutiny, for that’s what it’s all about and why we must not decry entirely the obsession with analytic skill in modern philosophy departments.

(source: Jacques-Louis David (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons)

[1] I am loathe, at this point, to use words like ‘truth’ for this thing we are searching for.

Posted Sun 24 Apr 2011 17:11:00 UTC Tags:

SETI Institute suspends search for aliens | San Jose Mercury News

This is very sad; we could learn so much about our own limitations and improve our conceptions of our view of the world by meeting other forms of life.

Posted Tue 26 Apr 2011 08:25:00 UTC Tags:

Now that I have three separate locations that I was tired of risking moving overland between, I’ve finally constructed a series of tunnels which will eventually house trains. Going for Black Mesa style if you couldn’t guess.

Here’s the bridge out to the line leading in both directions:

A slightly different angle to show the station exit:

Station under my starting house; you can also see a door to a ‘maintenance passage’ i.e. where I ended up digging the new tunnels into the wrong end of the station, where there was already a track going somewhere else. I screwed up in that the tracks basically go out the wrong ends and as a result take rather roundabout routes, but if it’s a fun ride once I get carts in I’ll leave it.

Pleased that I now don’t have to leave the safety of my cactus-protected homestead in order to go and do stuff.

Posted Tue 26 Apr 2011 21:57:00 UTC Tags:

I’ve been using the new powered rails to make my subway stations elegant to use, which works well and they work in both directions (though haven’t got a neat way of going straight through the station when you have no need to stop yet). However they’re not as good as a traditional booster, but they’re neat and tidy, and I have two-way boosters further down the tunnel when they’re needed to automatically speed things up.

I’m now at a point where, aside from starting a major new building project (when I do do this: I want to go on an exploration mission to find a valley in which to construct Orthanc and the rest of Isengard according to this description) the only thing I can do is do hours of strip mining and finish off my subway network (need moar iron) or go and finish my Mob Grinder. The interesting parts of both of these projects are done and now it’s just grinding to finish them. So now seems like an ideal time to uninstall Minecraft for the term. While it’s not been distracting me from work, not stopping me doing my usual six hours per day, it is getting in the way of doing all the other stuff I have to do and want to do.

Posted Wed 27 Apr 2011 16:16:00 UTC Tags:

I’ve spent some time this evening culling stuff I don’t read out of my e-mail setup: I’ve disabled mail delivery (and unsubscribed for lists that don’t support this) for a large number of lists, and for those I wish to remain on for archival purposes but don’t currently have very much interest in reading, I’ve cut them out of my .newsrc. This has reduced my total Gnus unread count from around 32k to 5k; note that this is only for the last six months of e-mail, too! Admittedly Gnus inflates counts (my inbox has 830 messages in it but Gnus reckons there are 4676) but it gets unread figures right most of the time.

Now that I’ve done this I would also like to start being more liberal with catchup and marking entire threads as read. For the mailing lists that remain (a mere five or six), I intend to look at the subject, see if I care and if not viciously mark it as read. It is time to put an end to my careful true unread/read flags; I’ve traditionally taken care to make sure that things are unread unless I read them properly, because I’ve never had cause to actually make use of this information and it only slows me down. I want to get better at processing large amounts of information in order to get more out of it rather than focusing on a few posts that aren’t actually that important.

There are a lot of other ways that Gnus can help me with all this. Atm I have different settings for my three types of mailbox: my inbox, which is special and which Gnus handles the archiving of using expiry; RSS feeds which Gnus clears out automatically and normal mail boxes which get archived on the server-side by archivemail. I would like to unify this so that Gnus is doing everything; I can work on that over the summer. This will also allow for easier searching.

But I can’t let Gnus do everything because I still need to store everything in Maildirs managed by offlineimap and a local dovecot instance, because Gnus is utterly useless at storage.

Another cool feature I hope to check out once I’ve retrained myself with the above is adaptive scoring (Gmail Priority Inbox? Pah!). For now I shall be using the poor man’s approach, which is getting dovecot’s sieve implementation to mark certain stuff as read.

I would also like to increase the breadth of the content I have coming in; there are things I am interested in/would like to look into more I’m not subscribed to blogs about (such as US politics). But this can wait until after I’ve got the hang of these new reading habits.

(yes, I know that ‘listservs’ is a name of non-free software but I’ve always really liked the term and it’s not really software that’s used much anymore)

Posted Wed 27 Apr 2011 19:13:00 UTC Tags:

Just saw this comment on YouTube:

Correct, good music is what makes a game immortal. Tiberian sun was/is one hell of a game, it really had a special athmosphere.Correct, good music is what makes a game immortal. Tiberian sun was/is one hell of a game, it really had a special athmosphere. [sic] —Rodriquez124

I heartily agree. Some favourites, though without playing the games they will be less good ofc:

to name but a few. Shame YouTube is the only real option for showing these.

Posted Wed 27 Apr 2011 23:22:00 UTC Tags:

The myth of the Lisp genius | The Endeavour

Richard Stallman is a good example of the Lisp genius. He’s a very strange man, amazingly talented, and a sort of tragic hero. Plus he has the hair and beard to fit the wizard archetype.

The Bipolar Lisp Programmer | Dr Mark Tarver — I know rather a few people like this; maybe they should all start learning Lisp.

Posted Thu 28 Apr 2011 17:53:00 UTC Tags:

There are no words for this betrayal. Look how far I’ve sunk; how far Emacs has sunk me.

Here’s the code (source 1, 2):

(setq-default cursor-type 'box)
;; variable width font in text buffers ...
(dolist (hook '(erc-mode-hook
        LaTeX-mode-hook
        org-mode-hook
        markdown-mode-hook
    gnus-article-mode-hook))
  (progn (add-hook hook (lambda () (variable-pitch-mode t)))
     (add-hook hook (lambda () (setq cursor-type 'bar)))))

;; ... but not in Org tables
(set-face-attribute 'org-table nil :inherit 'fixed-pitch)

I’m using the face Bitstream Vera Serif (would like to know just how this differs from my beloved Bitstream Charter).

(custom-set-faces
 '(variable-pitch ((t (:family "Bitstream Vera Serif")))))
Posted Fri 29 Apr 2011 18:13:00 UTC Tags:

So. Spaced emdashes, spaced endashes or unspaced emdashes to separate thoughts in sentences – like this – is my evening’s dilemma. Not the question of whether Mill made a substantial contribution to ethics; no, tonight we have TYPOGRAPHY.

The three variants:

  1. This is — a spaced emdash
  2. Here is a—unspaced emdash
  3. Here is – a spaced endash

And the issues:

  • The first option is non-standard.
  • The second option is the standard American English.
  • The third option is the standard for British English.

My dilemma is: I like emdashes and want to use them, but I speak and write British English. Further, if I adopt option 3 (as seems likely), shall I still allow myself spaced emdashes in such as titles?

Posted Fri 29 Apr 2011 18:42:00 UTC Tags:

Bringhurst suggests that normally, an ellipsis should be spaced fore-and-aft to separate it from the text, but when it combines with other punctuation, the leading space disappears and the other punctuation follows. This is the usual practice in typesetting. He provides the following examples:

i … j k…. l…, l l, … l m…? n…!

(source, retrieved 29/iv/2011)

Posted Fri 29 Apr 2011 18:47:00 UTC Tags:

Hacker Typer – now you can type like a hacker in the movies

Should be ‘Cracker Typer’ but I suppose films do use ‘hacker’.

(via Hacker News)

Posted Fri 29 Apr 2011 20:38:00 UTC Tags:

Philosophy is a demanding intellectual discipline, with many facets: logic, epistemology, philosophy of nature and science, metaphysics, ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of art, rhetoric, philosophy of language and mind. But a long tradition of ancient Greek philosophers, beginning with Socrates, made their philosophies also complete ways of life. For them reason, perfected by philosophy—not religion, not cultural traditions and practices—constitutes the only legitimate authority for determining how one ought to live. They also thought philosophically informed reason should be the basis for all our practical attitudes, all our decisions, and in fact the whole of our lives. In these lectures we examine the development of this pagan tradition in philosophy, from its establishment by Socrates, through Plato and Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicurus, the Pyrrhonian Skeptics, and Plotinus and late ancient Platonism.

This looks fantastic. Unfortunately I’m only going to be able to attend fortnightly.

(source, retrieved 29/iv/2011)

Posted Fri 29 Apr 2011 22:12:00 UTC Tags: