Dissemination of Information

Chinese Typewriter

In every era, in every area, there emerge individual geniuses.  In economic terms the success of society lies in harnessing the output of these individuals, and this seems to come down to three major considerations:  Dissemination, Collaboration and Enabling.

Europe had no great advantage in the world of the High Middle Ages.  China and the Ottoman Empire enjoyed many advantages over the Europeans.  What changed the game for Europe was the printing press, which disseminated information widely.

The printing press was a chinese invention.  The chinese long used wood carved block prints to copy books and playing cards etc.  They even invented a moveable type block printing press.  But the technology was unsuited to the Chinese alphabet.  As an example look at the photo of a Chinese typewriter above.  It is a laborious and time consuming process to hunt down the correct character and type it onto the page.  Touch typing is not an option and speed typing is out of the question.

Out of pure serendipity the moveable type press was perfectly suited to European alphabets.  Once it was trialled it became clear immediately that printed books, pamphlets and periodicals were here to stay.

What followed was an explosion in the availability of knowledge.  When Petrarch wanted books in the 14th Century he had to delve into the basements of churches all over Europe to unearth old copies of Roman and Greek originals.  150 years later Erasmus was able to buy books from a printer.  Universities could expand their libraries from 100’s to 1,000’s of texts.

Universities were the centres of the second consideration; collaboration.  Before the arrival of the university collaboration occured only when a wealthy patron collected scholars in his court.  Usually this was done by rulers because few people have the resources to bankroll a room full of scholars.

A university is a financial model which takes income from students to bankroll the collaborative research of the senior academics.  It is the perfect collaboration engine.  These days we also have collaboration in other forms, but behind closed doors.  When the military brings “intelligence” together they have no intention of sharing the results widely.  Similarly private corporations are motivated to protect their intellectual property from the competition.  Only Universities, with the “publish or perish” mantra are motivated first and foremost by collaboration to expand the human body of knowledge.

Enabling is the final consideration of the three.  A salutory lesson in how important enabling is lies with the Arabic world.  When the first European presses were printing bibles and selling like hot cakes a printer in Venice looked east for a fresh market.  He printed a Koran.

When the Ummah, the controlling body of Islam, saw this first attempt they were horrified.  As with early bibles the printed Koran contained errors.  Instead of working to fix the errors the Sultanate banned printing in the Ottoman Empire.  The result of this decision was to plunge the Arab world into a technological backwater.  From being one of the most advanced centres of maths, astronomy, physics, geography etc they lost pace against the West becoming the “Sick Man of Europe”.

Enabling academics involves accepting that they can have some theories that people find uncomfortable.  During the “McCarthy Era” with Reds under the Beds and the Hollywood blacklist in operation many academics with socialist leanings in the USA found themselves under investigation.  That is not the environment that stimulates research.

Today, in particular in the USA, certain pressure groups use social media to “expose” academics in an attempt to close them down.  These attacks mostly come from the religious right and many are motivated by a distinctly anti-academic faith based approach to learning which runs exactly counter to scientific method.  The 1925 Scopes trial on the teaching of Darwinism in Highschool is the most famous instance, and these attacks persist to this day.

Anti-intellectualism is a universal tool of populism of both the left and the right.  Nazis and Communists are equally enthusiastic in the burning of books they dislike.  They share this fetish with religous fundamentalists of all creeds.

Beware anyone who opposes the dissemination of information.

 

What is Erasmus?

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Born Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus ; Erasmus of Rotterdam in Netherlands was to the Northern Renaissance what Petrarch, the Father of Humanism, was to the Italian Renaissance.  For this reason Erasmus was called the “Prince of the Humanists”.

Erasmus trod the “Middle Way” between the corrupt Conservatives of the Catholic Church who resisted all reform, and the Protestant revolutionaries who wanted to tear down and rebuild the rotten edifice of Christianity.

The EuRopean Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students is a very tenuous acronym for the EU programe which aims to integrate students from EU member states at a time of their life when people are most open to meeting people from different backgrounds.

Erasmus grant funds students to study in Universities outside their home country, and to meet and integrate with students from other European countries.  The aim of the programme is pan-European integration, the formation of a “European Identity”.

The Erasmus Mundus programme is a parallel initiative aimed at integrating Europeans with students from outside the European Union.

In 1987-88 some 3,244 students participated.

In 2006 150,000 students took part.

In 2016 330,000 participated.

With association comes understanding and this goes hand in hand with a reduction of xenophobia and the fear that arises from a lack of understanding of the positions of distant populations.  It is highly significant that the “Vote Leave” campaign in the UK received greatest support from older, more insular and less educated people.  The young and educated are far more open to an integrated Europe.

Brexit is an initiative of old people, who will suffer none of the consequences, to make life difficult for the next generation, and possibly for generations to come.  If the UK had postponed the Brexit vote by just 5 years sufficient old people would have died, and young new voters would have registered to swing the vote the other way.

Today the EU agreed to an extension of Brexit to January 31st.  Today happens to be the Birthday of Erasmus who was born Oct 28th 1466.

 

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Telling Lies #9: Dissimulation

innocent

Pope Innocent by Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon the 16th century English philosopher wrote one of the most famous essays on lying; Of Simumlation and Dissimulation.  Francis Bacon the Irish born 20th Century artist painted a portrait of Innocence:  Pope Innocent X.

This post is about the 16th Century Bacon, and that unused and poorly understood word dissimulation.

In his essay Bacon argues that people use three broad strategies for telling lies:

Closeness or reservation:  This is the Mafia trick of omerta, complete silence,  “I ain’t sayin’ nuthin'”.  If you don’t say anything you can never be caught in a lie.  But it does not make you the best of conversationalists.

Dissimulation is where you say things that allow people to misinterpret your position, and when they misinterpret to your advantage do not correct them.

Simulation is when you say things that are patently untrue.  Flat out lying.

Many years ago I was serving on a University finance committee distributing funds to sports clubs.  At the same time I was chairman of the Rugby club.  At the end of year awards the Rugby Club and the Canoe Club were in competition for most improved club of the year.  The Committee had the final decision by secret ballot.

The Canoe club won by a single vote.

As with all these situations you have a pretty good idea of the support in the room.  There were only very few floating votes.  After the vote was delivered one of the committee members, let’s call him “the dissimlator”, approached me to comiserate with me.  He said he was sorry the rugby club did not win and said as he parted “you know how I voted”, and I thanked him for his support.

Then later in the evening the Chairwoman of the Ladies Hockey club came over to me and told me she had voted for the Rugby club.  I counted up the votes and realised something was wrong.

So I went over to “the dissumlator” and I said “Hi Kxvxx, you know when you said that I know how you voted?  I have to admit I don’t.  Who did you vote for?”

He was caught and impaled like a fish on a gaff.  He opened and closed his mouth, exactly like a fish on a gaff, and shrugged and walked away.  Guilty!  Caught and very embarrassed.

But he never told an actual flat out lie.  It was a classic dissimulation.  He told me that I knew what he did, and I thought I did and he was happy to allow me to believe an untruth if it gave him any political advantage.  He was trying to burden me with an obligation and he was exactly the type of character who would call in that favour in later life.

As you can tell from this post all that is long gone and forgotten, water under the bridge.  If I met Kxvxx today I would trust him 100%.  NOT.

 

 

How to choose a college course.

College Choice

As one cohort of students begin their first year in college a whole new batch are embarking on their final school year.  Somewhere along the way this year they need to fill in a form to apply for college places.

In Ireland the university and college applications process is centralised by a government body called the Central Applications Office.  So you will hear Irish kids talk about their CAO form and their CAO choices.

For the vast majority of Irish kids the system is entirely meritocratic.   It is a points based scoring system.  If you get sufficient points in your exams you get the place in college.  There is no opportunity to sway the opinions of a “selection” committee with a jazzy video or a fat donation.  There are some sensible exceptions.  Places for art schools generally involve an additional points allocation based on your portfolio.  Music schools award separate points for musical ability, awards and prizes.  But for the most part the selection is based on the results of your secondary school leaving certificate exam.

So in Ireland, when the Leaving Certificate results come out you will hear conversations about the “points race” and the “CAO Points”.  For reasons of social etiquette it is gauche to ask what points someone (or their child) received.  It is OK to ask “did they get their first choice?”  A high performing kid might get 525 points and be disappointed because they needed 550 to get into Law.  Another kid might be over the moon because they got the 300 points they needed to secure their first choice course.

These days it is possible to recover from a terrible leaving certificate and negotiate alternate routes into third level education.  But the leaving certificate remains the simplest and fastest way to get from school through college and into the workplace.

Hence the Venn diagram at the top of the article.  Confucius is supposed to have said that if you do something you love you will never work a day in your life.  It’s a nice idea and it is certainly wonderful to have a job you love.  It makes your days fly by and every morning is an engaging challenge rather than a depressing trudge to a workplace that seems like a prison.  The modern equivalent of the “dark satanic mills”.

Putting an old head on 18 year old shoulders is a challenge.  When I see a college course in data science I see a future of possibility, interesting work and excellent pay.  My 18 year old sees a lot of boring stuff on the syllabus.

Which brings me to the TV jobs farce.  When you look at TV what are the exciting jobs?

Lots of TV shows glamorise a law career.  Those sharp clothes, beautiful people, shiny courtrooms, exciting cases, sexy colleagues.  It all seems such a rush.  For me “Better Call Saul” is probably a fairer view of a law career.  There is glamour and excitement, for the senior partners.  For the grunts there are long days of work that is often boring and tedious, with risk of severe criticism for any mistake.

Law is categorised (Freakonomics:  Dubner & Levitt) as a career that is structured as a tournament.  You have a very wide entry base and a very narrow apex of the pyramid.  Those at the top, the partners, reap huge rewards from the work of their teams.  It is a microcosm of the capitalist system.  You get rich by taking the value of the work of your low paid staff.  Careers structured as tournaments are great if you win.  Not so great if you lose.  Either you spend your life being paid less than you are worth, or you depart from the competition to accept a more stable position, having given your best years to a senior partner.

Big 4 accounting firms are similarly structured as tournaments.  Kids need to be aware that if they enter that race they need to be up for the long haul.  20 years of 50 to 60 hour weeks, breakfast and lunch at the computer, working weekends, cancelling holidays, having kids who think the mobile phone is called “daddy”.

TV is also pretty good at glamorising jobs that do not pay.  TV is filled with interior design shows.  It seems there must be a booming career for interior designers.  But riddle me this, the last time you did a home makeover, how much did you spend with your interior designer?  What?  You didn’t use one?  Why ever not?  Oh, they cost too much.

So you have a handful of well connected interior designers who work for millionaires, who are probably the sons or daughters of millionaires themselves.  You then have a handful of designers who are connected to the right industries, such as hotels or restaurants, but they seem to get ALL the work in those industries.  Each year hundreds of young hopefuls enter college to study interior design and end up working in the restaurant business serving food instead of designing rooms.

My advice to young people selecting a college place, for what it is worth, is this.

  1. Use the Venn diagram above.  Be honest with yourself.  If you get 50% in Maths and you really love maths, but you get 80% in Spanish, you are better at Spanish, even if you hate it.
  2. Add up your points from the last set of exams you sat.  That is your base working assumption.  Unless you plan to really, really work really really hard, you are looking at a good approximation of your final marks.  Look at the courses in that points range.
  3. Search job sites, and the kind of job you would eventually like to have.  Look at the qualifications they specify as mandatory requirements.
  4. If you are selecting a career speak to some people who actually work in that career.  Don’t fall for the corporate literature or what you see on TV.  For instance a recent survey found that most US college students in nuclear physics learned most of what they knew about the subject from watching the Simpsons.
  5. Keep your options as open as you can early in your college life.  What I mean here is select the general rather than the specific.  If you have a choice of “General Science” or “Food science” go with the General and you will find that there are options to specialise all along the way.  If you go too specific too early it can be hard to back out if you hate it.
  6. Finally, don’t stress about it.  Most people end up working in a career that has little or nothing to do with their undergraduate college course.  Life takes you in some strange directions.  Whatever you do choose, stick with it.  Complete the course and get the degree.  Employers are impressed by people who finish what they start, not by people who found themselves on a beach in Thailand instead of sitting their finals.

 

 

Half Century

Findlater.jpg

We celebrated last night to mark the passing of 50 years for one of our peer group.  Happy Birthday Andrew!

We danced to tunes that were hot stuff when we met in College back in the 1980’s.  We were the DCU Business Studies class who graduated in 1990.  Simple Minds, Don’t you forget about me, The Whole of the Moon by the Waterboys, Morrissey and The Cure, David Bowie and even some Johnny Cash.

It’s great to relive the sense of your youth.  And at the same time we can’t forget our ages.  We may have adopted smartphone technology, but half of the gang can’t read a funny text because they forgot their reading glasses.  The music is too loud for good conversation.  What hair remains is either gray or is growing in the wrong places.

The dancing was great, but this morning I have a swollen knee.  There was a remarkably high water consumption going on, as old heads assessed the prospect of a Saturday hangover and took steps to head it off at the pass.

Back in the good old days we drank like fishes and could resurrect ourselves for a Saturday morning Rugby match.  That’s really what I miss!  The recovery powers of a 25 year old body.

 

Dance Hall Girls; by Robert William Service

Where are the dames I used to know
In Dawson in the days of yore?
Alas, it’s fifty years ago,
And most, I guess, have “gone before.”
The swinging scythe is swift to mow
Alike the gallant and the fair;
And even I, with gouty toe,
Am glad to fill a rocking chair.

Ah me, I fear each gaysome girl
Who in champagne I used to toast,
or cozen in the waltz’s whirl,
In now alas, a wistful ghost.
Oh where is Touch The Button Nell?
Or Minnie Dale or Rosa Lee,
Or Lorna Doone or Daisy Bell?
And where is Montreal Maree?

Fair ladies of my lusty youth,
I fear that you are dead and gone:
Where’s Gertie of the Diamond Tooth,
And where the Mare of Oregon?
What’s come of Violet de Vere,
Claw-fingered Kate and Gumboot Sue?
They’ve crossed the Great Divide, I fear;
Remembered now by just a few.

A few who like myself can see
Through half a century of haze
A heap of goodness in their glee
And kindness in their wanton ways.
Alas, my sourdough days are dead,
Yet let me toss a tankard down . . .
Here’s hoping that you wed and bred,
And lives of circumspection led,
Gay dance-hall girls o Dawson Town!