Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The writer and his teachers

From Mario Vargas Llosa's 2010 Nobel lecture (written and delivered in Spanish and beautifully translated by Edith Grossman):

Writing stories was not easy. When they were turned into words, projects withered on the paper and ideas and images failed. How to reanimate them? Fortunately, the masters were there, teachers to learn from and examples to follow. Flaubert taught me that talent is unyielding discipline and long patience. Faulkner, that form – writing and structure – elevates or impoverishes subjects. Martorell, Cervantes, Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy, Conrad, Thomas Mann, that scope and ambition are as important in a novel as stylistic dexterity and narrative strategy. Sartre, that words are acts, that a novel, a play, or an essay, engaged with the present moment and better options, can change the course of history. Camus and Orwell, that a literature stripped of morality is inhuman, and Malraux that heroism and the epic are as possible in the present as is the time of the Argonauts, the Odyssey, and the Iliad.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The civil service

A recent visit to a government department (an embassy) reminded me that frequently the civil service is neither civil nor much of a service.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Seeing further

Science sees further: A set of 12 short essays (and accompanying multimedia material) to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society. The one on uncertainty is particularly interesting.

Friday, December 17, 2010

That Was The Week That Was

Last week was Nobel Week in Stockholm and Oslo.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Fezziwig's Ball

This being the Christmas season, I'm reading A Christmas Carol to the boys at bedtime. What follows is a sample of Dickens's literary genius as exhibited in that small book. He's describing an impromptu Christmas Ball at the business premises of old Mr. Fezziwig where Scrooge had served an apprenticeship as a young man. Observe the master at work:

“Yo ho, my boys!” said Fezziwig. “No more work to-night. Christmas Eve, Dick. Christmas, Ebenezer! Let’s have the shutters up,” cried old Fezziwig, with a sharp clap of his hands, “before a man can say Jack Robinson!”

You wouldn’t believe how those two fellows went at it! They charged into the street with the shutters—one, two, three—had ’em up in their places—four, five, six—barred ’em and pinned ’em—seven, eight, nine—and came back before you could have got to twelve, panting like race-horses.

“Hilli-ho!” cried old Fezziwig, skipping down from the high desk, with wonderful agility. “Clear away, my lads, and let’s have lots of room here! Hilli-ho, Dick! Chirrup, Ebenezer!”

Clear away! There was nothing they wouldn’t have cleared away, or couldn’t have cleared away, with old Fezziwig looking on. It was done in a minute. Every movable was packed off, as if it were dismissed from public life for evermore; the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was as snug, and warm, and dry, and bright a ball-room, as you would desire to see upon a winter’s night.

In came a fiddler with a music-book, and went up to the lofty desk, and made an orchestra of it, and tuned like fifty stomach-aches. In came Mrs. Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile. In came the three Miss Fezziwigs, beaming and lovable. In came the six young followers whose hearts they broke. In came all the young men and women employed in the business. In came the housemaid, with her cousin, the baker. In came the cook, with her brother’s particular friend, the milkman. In came the boy from over the way, who was suspected of not having board enough from his master; trying to hide himself behind the girl from next door but one, who was proved to have had her ears pulled by her mistress. In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow. Away they all went, twenty couple at once; hands half round and back again the other way; down the middle and up again; round and round in various stages of affectionate grouping; old top couple always turning up in the wrong place; new top couple starting off again, as soon as they got there; all top couples at last, and not a bottom one to help them! When this result was brought about, old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out, “Well done!” and the fiddler plunged his hot face into a pot of porter, especially provided for that purpose. But scorning rest, upon his reappearance, he instantly began again, though there were no dancers yet, as if the other fiddler had been carried home, exhausted, on a shutter, and he were a bran-new man resolved to beat him out of sight, or perish.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Education vs. Enlightenment

An alternative title for this post is: "The heart of darkness vs. The mind of light." If I succeed in explaining my point, you'll understand why by the end.

I was thinking about this in the context of the current crisis in the recent presidential elections in Ivory Coast. The incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, has refused to concede defeat to his rival, Alassane Ouattara. (For the record, it should be noted that by all objective accounts Ouattara was the rightful winner, but that fact is not central to my argument.) Both men have claimed victory. Both men have been sworn in as president. Both men have appointed cabinets. And both men have the support of battle-ready armies. The proverbial meeting of the irresistible force and the immovable object, you might say. It's still unclear as to how this particular instance of that paradox will be resolved. But here's my point:

How is it and why is it that highly educated people like Gbagbo (a former university professor) and his cohorts (apparently, his new prime minister is a university professor and the president of the Constitutional Council which declared him the "winner" is also well educated) come to be the main actors in such a sordid drama? Isn't "Education" supposed to be the key to Africa's development? Evidently not.

Consider the alternative of "Enlightenment." Enlightenment is to Education what fuel is to an engine. Or, what the culture of civilisation is to the structure of civilisation. Development requires a marriage of the heart and the mind. Darkness of the heart will soon dim any lightness of the mind.

This, it seems to me, is the crux of the problem. The outward forms of development have been adopted, embraced even, but not sufficiently assimilated. The moral dimension is missing. Ideally, we should pursue both Education and Englightenment. But if we have to choose one of them, it had better be Enlightenment. Current events vividly illustrate the disastrous consequences of the opposite choice.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why is Africa Poor?

Excellent article by Dr. Greg Mills, Director of the Brenthurst Foundation and author of a new book by the same title. Here's just one of the thoughts I liked:
Africa is not poor because its people do not work hard but because their productivity is too low.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Converse Figures

Shock! Horror! The U.S. unemployment rate edged up towards 10 percent in November 2010. Sometimes a little contrast helps to keep things in perspective. Consider this: In some countries, including one or two that I've lived in, the employment rate is about 10 percent (if that).

Friday, December 10, 2010

Gödel's Gulch

A recent discovery:
  • Richard Lipton's blog on the theory of computing from his personal perspective. A rare combination: a top-notch scientist and a top-notch writer.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

On superfluous words in the titles of scientific books and papers

The word "On" at the beginning of a title, for instance. I've never understood why authors use it and I've never found a single case where the "On" can't be omitted to good effect.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Association or Causation?

The classic paper The Environment and Disease: Association or Causation? (Proc. Royal Society of Medicine, May 1965, vol. 58, no. 5, pp. 295–300) deals with an ever present scientific problem: Having established or observed that two variables are associated, on what grounds can we reasonably infer that one causes the other? The author is Sir Austin Bradford Hill, co-author of the first paper to establish a link between smoking and lung cancer.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Presenting data and information

Is presenting data and information an art or a science? Properly done, it should be both. Edward Tufte explains.

Friday, December 03, 2010


"You can observe a lot by watching."

--Yogi Berra

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Un entrepreneur sans frontières

An African entrepreneur transcending all kinds of borders.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

TED talks

Suppose you were given 18 minutes to give the talk of your life. What theme would you choose? And how would you structure and present your talk to achieve the greatest impact? This is the basic challenge that faces a speaker at a TED conference. 2010 was a vintage year. I've only listened to two of the talks, but either one of them is proof enough: