Sunday, 27 November 2016

Umberto Eco on Ur-Fascism

Charlie Stross recommends a 1995 essay by Umberto Eco on the original Italian fascism, and the underlying core features of fascism.  Over 20 years later, read it with a horrifying feeling of déjà vu.
Mussolini did not have any philosophy: he had only rhetoric. ...
... The Fascist Party was born boasting that it brought a revolutionary new order; but it was financed by the most conservative among the landowners who expected from it a counter-revolution.  At its beginning fascism was republican. ...
... It was not that the men of the party were tolerant of radical thinking, but few of them had the intellectual equipment to control it.
...  think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.
1. ... the cult of tradition. ... As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message. ...
2. ... the rejection of modernism
3. ... the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism ...
4. ... In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.
5. ... exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.
6. ... the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. ...
7. ... the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside. ...
8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. ...
9. ... pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare. ...
10. ... contempt for the weak. ... Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens ...
11. ... everybody is educated to become a hero. ... The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.
12. ... machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). ...
13. ... a selective populism, a qualitative populism ... one follows the decisions of the majority ... There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.
14. ... Newspeak. ... use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.
We must keep alert, so that the sense of these words will not be forgotten again. Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world. Franklin Roosevelt’s words of November 4, 1938, are worth recalling: “I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.” Freedom and liberation are an unending task.

[My bolded text]
Read the whole thing.  Lest we forget.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

an aberration and abomination

More journalists like this, please!
No, Trump, We Can’t Just Get Along 
You are an aberration and abomination who is willing to do and say anything — no matter whom it aligns you with and whom it hurts — to satisfy your ambitions. 
I don’t believe you care much at all about this country or your party or the American people. I believe that the only thing you care about is self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment. Your strongest allegiance is to your own cupidity.

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Friday, 25 November 2016

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Eliza has better conversation

A chat-bot recently passed the Turing test, but I don’t know how:
I think that countries will not do that to us. I don’t think if they’re run by a person that understands leadership and negotiation they’re in no position to do that to us, no matter what I do. They’re in no position to do that to us, and that won’t happen, but I’m going to take a look at it. A very serious look. I want to also see how much this is costing, you know, what’s the cost to it, and I’ll be talking to you folks in the not-too-distant future about it, having to do with what just took place. 
As far as the, you know, potential conflict of interests, though, I mean I know that from the standpoint, the law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest. That’s been reported very widely. Despite that, I don’t want there to be a conflict of interest anyway. And the laws, the president can’t. And I understand why the president can’t have a conflict of interest now because everything a president does in some ways is like a conflict of interest, but I have, I’ve built a very great company and it’s a big company and it’s all over the world. People are starting to see, when they look at all these different jobs, like in India and other things, number one, a job like that builds great relationships with the people of India, so it’s all good. But I have to say, the partners come in, they’re very, very successful people. They come in, they’d say, they said, ‘Would it be possible to have a picture?’ Actually, my children are working on that job. So I can say to them, Arthur, ‘I don’t want to have a picture,’ or, I can take a picture. I mean, I think it’s wonderful to take a picture. I’m fine with a picture. But if it were up to some people, I would never, ever see my daughter Ivanka again. That would be like you never seeing your son again. That wouldn’t be good. That wouldn’t be good. But I’d never, ever see my daughter Ivanka.
What is this I don't even

Read the whole thing, if you dare.

Despite it winning a recent competition, people have complained this chat-bot has too restricted a vocabulary.  But that’s not the problem.  The problem isn’t even the fractured syntax.  It’s the total lack of any semantics that means this bot should have failed. AI can do so much better than this in 2016.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

the cold in the cooler will get hotter as a ruler

An excellent paper on areas of small system thermodynamics that I hadn’t come across before.  Beautifully written, with oodles of intuition as well as the technicalities.
Equalities and Inequalities : Irreversibility and the Second Law of Thermodynamics at the Nanoscale
... the fluctuation theorem ultimately traces back to the idea that trajectories come in pairs related by time-reversal, and that the production of entropy is intimately linked with the probability of observing one trajectory relative to the other ...

[via John Baez’ Azimuth blog]

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Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Bravo, Nicola Sturgeon!

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Monday, 21 November 2016

Haskell yourself in the foot

"Shoot yourself in the foot" variant for Haskell programmers.
The Evolution of a Haskell Programmer

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Sunday, 20 November 2016

Saturday, 19 November 2016

bronze, silver, gold

Seen on a walk today, in glorious crisp sunshine.  The calm before the storm (which is due to hit tomorrow).



Friday, 18 November 2016

Do bears dance in the woods?

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Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Triumph of Stupidity, redux

Bertrand Russell wrote The Triumph of Stupidity in 1933.

John Wilkins has lightly edited it to bring it up to date.

Compare and contrast the final lines, and weep.

Remember what happened after 1933, because:
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. 
(George Santayana, 1905)

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

TV review: The Expanse, season 1

This SyFy series is based on the series of books by James Corey. The setting is the solar system, a few hundred years from now. There are colonies on the moon and Mars, and “Belter” space stations, on Ceres and elsewhere. Someone is trying to raise tension between all the groups, someone is blowing up ships, someone has disappeared, and something is on the loose.

There are two main plots strands, plus a few minor ones. First, world-weary Belter cop Josephus Miller is tasked by his boss to track down missing Earther Juliette, because her rich father has asked for a favour. Second, world-weary space freighter officer James Holden is one of only a handful of survivors when a mysterious cruiser blows up their ship the Canterbury; he sets off to find out what happened. These quests are unsurprisingly connected, and Miller and Holden eventually end up in the same place, and discover something terrifying threatening all the colonies.

I haven’t read the books, but, despite these ten episodes covering events in more than one book (so I am told), the pace is glacial. They have spent a lot of money on the futuristic sets and weightless SFX, and they want the viewers to appreciate that. Pity everywhere is so grim and grey, then. The actors are clearly depressed by the locations, as they mostly mumble their way morosely through the script.

Some of the world building is good: the dialect spoken by the Belters gives a feeling of language evolution (and is no harder to understand than Earth-standard, given the way everyone mumbles out in space). They get round the weightlessness on-ship with magnetic boots, and have Coriolis forces visible in their whiskey back home on the asteroids. Other little features in the world building are irritating, though. For most of the time, the Belters are complaining about desperate water shortages and rationing. Then, in the final episodes, everyone is fleeing through a maze of twisty little corridors on the asteroid Eros. To demonstrate how decayed and run-down the whole place is, these corridors have water streaming down their walls, and dripping from the ceilings. Right.

And then the season ends on an cliff-hanger, with essentially nothing explained or resolved.

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Monday, 14 November 2016

language lesson

Word of the day: kakistrocracy :  “government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens”. 

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Saturday, 12 November 2016

TV review: Arrow, season 3

My name is Oliver Queen. After five years in hell, I have come home with only one goal: to save my city. Now others have joined my crusade. To them I’m Oliver Queen. To the rest of Starling City, I am someone else. I am … something else.
The voiceover has changed from "five years on a hellish island" to "five years in hell", needed as we learn more about Oliver Queen’s past. Everything gets very complicated, as having a villain of the week to save the city from is no longer enough. A long complex arc involving Malcolm Merlyn’s time in the League of Assassins, Thea Queen’s rapprochement with then repudiation of Merlyn, the impact of Sara’s second death on Laurel and Quentin Lance, Oliver’s own run-in with the League’s leader, Ra’s al Ghul, and his daughter Nyssa, and more, leads to a shattering climax. Just who has betrayed whom?

Oliver still needs to learn that deceiving his friends about Important Facts in order to Protect Them is not a good way to engender trust. Will any of them ever trust Oliver again?

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Wednesday, 9 November 2016


I don’t want to live on this planet any more.

In the UK way of writing dates, today is 9/11.

Jo Walton has a way with words.

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Tuesday, 8 November 2016

view from a hotel window, pre-dawn edition

Just before dawn, looking east into the rising sun.  Note the contrail in the top left quadrant, glowing as it catches the sunlight from below the horizon.  There are a couple of other fainter contrails elsewhere: can you spot them?

7:14 am, GMT.  Some small marks are due to the grubby windowpane: I can’t open the window more than a crack to get an unobstructed view, unfortunately.

The weather forecast is for rain this afternoon.

Monday, 7 November 2016

5 great short videos

A brilliant set of 5 short videos about entropy, energy, and complexity.
Entropy and Complexity, Cause and Effect, Life and Time

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Sunday, 6 November 2016

stalker song

A Goose + Sting = One Great Vine

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Saturday, 5 November 2016

Thursday, 3 November 2016

sovereignty of parliament

A glimmer of hope?
Brexit court defeat for UK government

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Tuesday, 1 November 2016

book review: The Computer as Crucible

Jonathan M. Borwein, Keith Devlin.
The Computer as Crucible: an introduction to experimental mathematics.
A K Peters. 2009

The discipline of mathematics has many aspects. There is the process of exploration, “messing around”, spotting patterns, suggesting hypotheses and conjectures. Then there is the process of proof: going from the initial statement to the fully proven theorem, which in non-trivial cases will also involve significant elements of exploration. Finally, there is the theorem itself, a statement of mathematical fact, backed up by a rock-solid argument of the tidied-up proof. Often though, only that final proof, and none of the processes leading up to it, is made public. This can lead to an external view of mathematics as magical results of genius, rather than a process of creative hard graft.

In my discipline of computer science, there is some support for the process of proof, with a computer helping to make sure the steps really are rock solid, and not instead built on sand. Unfortunately, the computer is a super-pedant, even more so that the most nit-picking of mathematicians, and nothing but the most adamantine of rock will do for it. Valid short cuts such as “without loss of generality”, “by symmetry”, and “abusing the notation” are not allowed, making these tools somewhat exasperating to use at times (although they are improving all the time).

But what about that initial process of exploration? Experimental Mathematics augments that stage: using a computer to help “messing around”, taking away (some of) the tedium of exploratory calculations, providing more examples and help with pattern discovery.

This book provides an introduction to such Experimental Mathematics, with several examples, and suggested exercises if you feel inclined to pursue some of the ideas further. Many of the examples are of the form:
  1. Have a mathematical expression such as a series formula, or definite integral, from somewhere (maybe a previous round of exploration)
  2. Use a computer to get a good numerical approximation to the expression, eg, 3.1462643699419723423
  3. Use a program to suggest a possible closed form representation of that number, eg, in this case, √2 + √3
  4. Use that closed form as a conjecture for the actual value of the expression, and try to prove it (which may include further experimental mathematics)
There are several examples of increasing complexity, covering sequences, series, integrals, and more, with discussion of the discoveries of the results and their proofs. There is discussion about the famous formula that allows the calculation of the nth binary digit of π, without needing to calculate all the preceding n–1 digits. I also learned of “spigot” algorithms to calculate numerical values, which produce the digits one by one, cutting down on memory requirements.

The book definitely gives a flavour of the overall process, with enough pointers to suitable software resources for the reader to take up some of the challenges. However, I was left feeling that the flavour was somewhat weak. Okay, now we can calculate π to a bazillion digits, or find its gazillionth (binary) digit without calculating the earlier ones, and we have proofs of lots of closed form solutions. And yet, I didn’t come away with a feeling of much mathematical depth in these results. At most, in some cases the process suggests links between seemingly unrelated expressions. But I was hoping for more significant results. For example, the book finishes with a short chapter on “discovery by visualisation”, an area where the computer surely reigns supreme, yet surprisingly little is made of this. Maybe I am simply unaware of a vast existing industry in mathematics that is about proving such seemingly-pedestrian but actually important results, which has now become much more automated and hence more productive?

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