Sunday, January 31, 2016

Foreign Correspondents

Most of us get our information about the world outside the places where we go and can see for ourselves from the news industry. For remote, foreign climes, we get all our information from foreign correspondents.

There are two sources everyone should read about foreign correspondents: Scoop by Waugh, and The Quiet American by Greene (do NOT watch the Audie Murphy movie).

Waugh and Greene were not well paid for their novels, and both worked at day jobs as foreign correspondents and later wrote novels where the main protagonist was, guess what, a foreign correspondent.

Waugh is best known for his depressing WWII novel about Brideshead. But most of his early work was comic novels like Scoop.

Scoop is a farce. It begins when the owner of a major newspaper gets confused and orders the writer of the gardening column sent to cover a war in Ismaelia, a fictional African country. The gardening columnist has no idea how to be a war correspondent, and so observes the pros dashing off after the latest red herring, while he doesn't even know that a major, breaking (but false) story requires everyone to run off to the site of all the action.

The Quiet American is a novel about an old, seasoned pro of a foreign correspondent, covering a war in French Indochina. The protagonist says that he cannot report any of what he sees. First (to get paid) he has to file stories. All stories, before the local telegrapher will send them, must be approved by the French censor, who removes anything that might reveal what is really happening. The wire, when received back in the UK, must be approved by the UK censors. Finally, the editors at the newspaper will only print a version of the story that fits their editorial policy, a policy that refuses to print any of the things that are actually happening.

The old wrote that no one knew how most of the Syrian victims had died, and no one knew who had used poison gas to kill thousands, and the US and UK should not eliminate the Syrian government until they knew whodunit. The UK constabulary shut down that unpatriotic The new and much improved (approved by the governments of the UK and US) note that it has been irrefutably proven that every one of the 300,000 dead, unarmed, peaceful protesters was killed by the evil regime using illegal WMD, and the West has a duty to remove that evil regime and replace it with a good, legitimate Wahhabi government (which will result in well-earned profits for the hardest working and most patriotic members of the US, and EU).

Of course, there are still unpatriotic liars who, instead of telling what the governments of the US and EU have proclaimed is the TRVTH, tell what they've seen with their own eyes. Which is obviously a terrible thing to do, so I hope no one reads the evil reporter who says what terrible things like 'proof' and 'evidence' show are true, that unpatriotic Seymore Hersh:

It's hard to see how anyone can say the US and EU governments are big liars based on nothing but 'proof' and 'evidence' that contradict all their stories. Since the US and EU governments are all Democracies, they CANNOT lie, only dictatorships like Syria, Iran, Russia and China can and do lie about everything. So, if all the facts, proof, and evidence says that the US and EU governments are lying, we must reject every one of those facts, proofs, and evidence.

Fortunately, the next president of the US will almost certainly be Secretary Clinton. She has to show she is much tougher than the wimp Obama (and the Bushes and Bill). Obama did the right thing in Libya, bringing the country peace and prosperity, but then chickened out and allowed the evil regimes in Syria, Iran, Russia and China to continue to destroy democracy (and profits for the biggest donors in those democracies).

Secretary Clinton has promised, as soon as she's elected, to overthrow the evil Syrian regime, then the evil Iranian regime (easier since Obama convinced them to neutralise all their WMD), then Russia and China. After which the world will be VERY peaceful

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

US Presidential Election

The US election matters to the entire world, and this one has been more newsworthy than most, but that's about to end.

Before 1972, a dozen or so old, white, Republican men, and a dozen or so old, white, Democratic men chose the Republican and Democratic nominee for president in late summer of the election year. The campaign started after the nominees were announced, and lasted about three months.

In 1968, a slender majority of Democrats wanted the US to leave Vietnam. So a large minority of Democrats, plus a large majority of Republicans, thought leaving would be worse than Chamberlain at Munich, more like if he'd been PM in '17 and decided the Allies should surrender and turn all of Europe over to the tyrannical Kaiser. (The UK's official position was that the First World War was absolutely necessary and the British senior generals were brilliant in finally managing to single-handed defeat the evil Kaiser's armed forces. And after losing WWII unconditionally, German historians have been forced to write that Germany was the sole aggressor in WWI,  that the Kaiser was evil, and that Germany was very lucky that the Allies liberated them from the Kaiser).

So, in '68,  the Democratic leadership chose Humphrey, who said the US could never win the war, since China and the USSR were supporting the North Vietnamese, but neither could it withdraw, since that would lead to a Communist take-over of the entire world. Young Democrats rioted after the party leadership chose Humphrey (who lost by a narrow margin when many Democrats stayed home for the '68 election), and the Democratic leadership said, beginning in '72, the voters could choose the nominee.

The slender majority of Democrats against the war chose McGovern in '72, who lost to a massive majority for Nixon. But the '72 system is the one we've got. And the campaign for the nomination starts before the mid-term elections.

We've only had 11 elections with the new rules, and so we got a Trump for the first time.

Normally, most candidates are senators or governors, known only to voters in their own state. So the national vote is spread many ways, and the holder of the plurality changes weekly until the voting starts, after which many run out of money, one gains first the plurality and then the majority and then is nominated at the Convention.

Trump was a TV figure, and so had much better name recognition among the voters than any other candidate. And 1/3 of Republican voters really like him and keep telling pollsters they'll vote for him, and so he's kept his plurality for more than 6 months, which has never before happened in any US Presidential nomination campaign.

The first vote is on 1 February. There are only four small states voting all during February, but some of the throng of Republican candidates for the nomination should finally realise that their run is hopeless, donors will realise it and cut them off, and the field should be winnowed. Once that happens, Trump disappears.

Meanwhile, some try to mould the Democratic nomination campaign to fit the Republican one. Which it ain't. Secretary Clinton has a massive majority of those who will vote in the Democratic primaries and caucuses (except maybe the first two). Most African-Americans will vote for the Secretary, as will most Hispanics. The white, male liberal Democrats prefer Sanders, but they are a tiny majority of Democrats (except in the first two states).

So, by the end of February, it should be down to Secretary Clinton against some Republican who is NOT Donald Trump.

After which, it looks like Secretary Clinton will coast to an easy victory.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Peter and John

In school, we were told that, when we started to work, there would be a lot to learn. When we'd gotten to be the best in our group, we'd be promoted to head of the group, so we could teach the others how to be the best. When we'd gotten to be the best foreman of all the groups, we'd be promoted to supervisor, to teach the other foremen. When we'd gotten to be the best supervisor, we'd be promoted to manager, then director, then junior executive, then senior executive.

Of course, everyone learns at a different rate, and some would only get to foreman, or supervisor, or manager. The best and brightest and hardest workers would rise to executive. Or so we were taught.

Then came Peter and his principle. When you promote your best worker to foreman, you lose your best worker and gain a mediocre foreman, since the skills for worker and foreman are not at all the same. Likewise if you promote the best from any level to the next level, you lose your best at the lower level and gain someone who is probably not very good at the next level. No. Never promote. If you need a new foreman, raid your competitors by offering a rise in pay to their best foreman. Likewise for supervisors, managers, directors, and executives.

So I was the best programmer at a firm, and they said they were making me 'acting supervisor,' and I'd be a real supervisor if I proved I could do it. I was given John as my sole subordinate. I gave John an assignment to design and program half of what the two of us had to do. At the end of the day, I asked to see his progress. 'I don't want to show you until I've finished.'

'I have to see how far you've gotten. NOW!' John showed me he had done absolutely nothing. 'I didn't understand what you were asking.' So I wrote the design that night and gave it to John in the morning, saying, 'Code this.'

End of the day, same story. 'I don't want to show you until it's finished.'

'Show me what you've done. NOW!' Nothing. So I wrote the code and asked John to type it. Same thing. Nothing. So I typed the code, ran it, and asked John to pick up the output. Same. He disappeared all day and came back without any output.

I went to the manager and complained.

'We gave you John because none of us has been able to get any work out of him. If you could have gotten him to work, we'd have made you supervisor. But you didn't, so you'll just remain our best software designer.'

But the VP had hired John, and no one could tell the VP that hiring John had been a mistake. Since John couldn't (or wouldn't) do any work, he was promoted to supervisor after one month. Then he sent his CV around, showing that he was a very fast-burner, rising from analyst to supervisor in just one month. Our competitor hired him as manager, and (last I heard) he was a senior VP less than five years out of university.

Talent always shows itself and rises to the top.

Not technical talent, which is worthless, but the great talent that John had, a talent in which I am completely lacking.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Socrates and the square root of two

According to Plato, Socrates taught about twice the square root of two. But I figure, twice the square root of two is just double the fun.

Socrates was visiting Meno, and asked for a young slave. Meno ordered the slave to do whatever Socrates asked.

Socrates drew a 2 x 2 square, and asked the slave to draw a square that was exactly double the 2 x 2 square. The slave drew a 4 x 4 square. Socrates asked, 'How many squares in the 2 x 2 square?'

'Four,' answered the slave.

'And how many squares in the square you drew?' asked Socrates.

'Sixteen,' answered the slave.

'And how many squares in a square that was double the square I drew?' asked Socrates.

'Eight,' answered the slave.

'So how would you draw a square that was double the square I drew?' asked Socrates.

The slave drew a 3 x 3 square. Socrates asked, 'How many squares inside your square?'

'Nine,' answered the slave.

'How many squares would be in a square whose side was the diagonal of the square I drew?' asked Socrates.

The slave drew such a square. It had half of Socrates' square inside, and that was one quarter of the entire square that had as its side the diagonal of Socrates' square. So the square with a side the same as a diagonal of Socrates' square had four halves of Socrates' square, hence it was exactly double the size of Socrates' square.

Socrates noted that he had never told the slave how to solve the problem. Socrates had only asked questions until the slave remembered the solution. This, of course, meant that the slave had already known the solution and forgotten it. Which meant that the slave was a reincarnation of someone who knew the answer, but, when one is reincarnated, one forgets everything until a skilled interrogator recovers your forgotten memories.

So Socrates, a Greek, proved that the Hindu belief in reincarnation MUST be true.

(Or else Socrates proved that asking the right questions can teach a student things the student never knew before at all, in this incarnation or any other.)

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Square Root of Two (part 1)

Pythagoras taught that every number can be written as a ratio. Consider a man's arm and his height. One can certainly write the ratio of the length of his arm to his height. Can't one?

Pythagoras was, of course, very familiar with the square root of 2, which is the length of the diagonal of a right triangle with sides that are both 1. But then one of his students proved that the square root of two could never be a ratio. Pythagoras figured his student was a) irrational; and b) a heretic.

I'm not sure if it's true, but they say that Pythagoras had the student murdered by his more devoted followers who would never question his teachings.

As it turns out, if one could measure the length of a man's arm perfectly, and if one could measure his height perfectly, the length of the man's arm would NOT be some perfect ratio of his height. A very small infinity of numbers can be written as perfect ratios, and a very large infinity cannot, so the length of a man's arm is never a perfect ratio to his height.

This is an important part of basic logic: one cannot say that something does not exist without a proof (like the one Pythagoras' student gave that no ratio can exist for the square root of two). Some say that anyone claiming that something does not exist has no burden of proof, those who say it does exist have all the burden. This is wrong. If no one cannot prove that something exists, and no one can prove that it does not exist, then logicians are forced into agnosticism: they must agree that no one knows if it does or does not exist.

Of course, the square root of two exists, but there is no way to write it as a ratio. It's the ratio that the student proved does not exist.

That's about all there is to say about Pythagoras and the square root of two.

Socrates used the square root of two to prove that reincarnation is true, but I'll leave that one for another day.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Thrasymachus and the Truth

In grade school, every American child learns that George Washington never lied. Not once in his entire life. The story was written years after Washington died, when no one was alive who knew if he had or did not have a lifelong reputation for veracity, and the author provided no sources for his report, and no sources have been found in more than a century of searching. So it appears the life without a single lie was a posthumous gift to Washington.

Today, things go the opposite way. Thrasymachus came up with a definition of 'Justice' as whatever the strongest power says it is. Socrates found inconsistencies in that definition, and so ruled it out. But Socrates (though he didn't know the term) was looking for a prescriptive definition of justice, one that satisfies some theoretical demands (e.g., absolutely consistency). Thrasymachus (though he didn't know the term) was giving a descriptive definition.

As the most powerful person on earth, the US president can not only define what justice means, but also what is true, so, for the US president, TRUTH is as Thrasymachus would have described it if he'd thought of it.

So, when President Johnson said he hated war, that he did not want to go to war, but the North Vietnamese had attacked, without any provocation, a US Navy ship in International Waters, and this was as bad as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, every American newspaper confirmed that what Johnson said was true, and the US had no choice but to go to war against North Vietnam.

After Johnson died, newspapers reported that, in fact, the well documented attack by the North Vietnamese had never happened.

When Bush, jr said he did not want to go to war in Iraq, but Saddam had Weapons of Mass Destruction, including a nearly complete nuclear arsenal, all the Western newspapers agreed that their reporters had confirmed the existence of the WMD, including a nuclear arsenal. This was NOT like the faked attack on a US Navy ship by the North Vietnamese, and it would be a horrible mistake to blame Bush, jr for Johnson's lies, a mistake that would lead to an inevitable nuclear attack on the US.

But after Bush, jr left office and was no longer President of the US, most newspapers reported that the nuclear arsenal, the existence of which they reported had been irrefutably proven, never existed. (There are still some Bush, jr supporters who said the US military found those missiles, with nuclear warheads and fuses lit, and they managed to snuff the fuses just in the nick of time, but this information was classified so as not to frighten the American people, and Bush, jr was telling the TRUTH. But where the believers in the nukes were a large majority of Americans while Bush, jr was President of the US, now they are a small minority of Americans.)

Today, when Seymore Hersh wrote that President Obama was less than truthful about Osama, the Libyan Ambassador's death, and Syria, every Western newspaper condemned him as a racist, tinfoil-hat wearing conspiracy theorist. Hersh's impressive credentials and the fact that the official White House releases suffer from internal and external inconsistencies do not matter. President Obama is the President of the United States, so whatever he says is TRUE, by the Thrasymachus definition of TRUTH. Proof and evidence notwithstanding, whatever President Obama says is the absolute TRUTH.

How long that TRUTH will last after Obama is no longer president remains to be seen.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The price of oil

Basic economics says that increased prices reduce demand, and decreased prices increase demand. When things are normal, increasing the price decreases total sales. Not just unit sales, total dollar sales, because demand falls by so much that the increased price does not produce increased (or even steady) sales in dollars (or whatever currency one uses to measure).

Oil is different. A person buys a home in the suburbs with no public transportation, and buys a car to get to work. If the price goes up, it's not possible to stop driving to work, or to sell the house and the car and move to a flat on a bus route. So one muddles through.

And if the price falls, one cannot immediately buy a house in the suburbs and a gas-guzzling SUV.

But, with lower prices, people buy bigger cars and more move to the suburbs and buy cars, so eventually, demand rises, just not right away.

Also, with lower prices, supply is supposed to fall. But, with oil, the cost is in finding the oil and drilling the wells. Once drilled, it costs little to pump, and not pumping causes the well to collapse, losing all the money already spent drilling it. So supply does not drop right away, but there is less exploration and less drilling, so eventually, lower prices will mean less supply and more demand, just not for a year or more.

So, for now, some are predicting a world price of $20 a barrel. Or $15. Or $10. On Friday, oil broke through the support at $30, and looks like it's heading down. If the UN says Iran is in full compliance, it can sell a lot more oil. So lower prices for now.

So more houses in the suburbs, more SUVs, less exploration, and less drilling. But all this will take years before it has any effect on the price of oil.

But when those houses get built and those SUVs get bought and the existing wells get depleted, which will take years, it will mean $100 a barrel. Or $200. Or more.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Counting the number of letters in the Arabic alphabet

Since leaving the US, I have met many people for whom English is a second language (if they don't speak any English, that limits my ability to interact with them to just about nil).

I asked many of them, 'How many letters are there in your alphabet?' since I'm always curious. And the answer I always got was '26'. Which seemed strange to me. How is it these alphabets have the exact same number of letters as the English version of the Latin alphabet?

The answer is that, when native-English speaking children go to their first day of school, the teacher always says, 'We are going to learn to read and write English. There are 26 letters in the alphabet, and 5 of them, a, e, i, o, and u, are vowels.' Then the teacher writes the alphabet, and the children all learn the alphabet song.

In English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, the teachers start in a similar way: 'We are going to learn English. There are 26 letters in the alphabet, and 5 of them, a, e, i, o, and u, are vowels.' The students probably don't know the English words 'letters' or 'alphabet' or '5' or 'vowels,' but those who pass the ESL course had better learn that, in the English version of the Latin alphabet, there are 26 letters, of which 5 are vowels.

(The teachers usually don't tell students the number of consonants, but given that there are 26 letters and 5 vowels, simple arithmetic shows there are 19 consonants. And if my maths seems strange, that's because English and maths don't mix: the English alphabet has 26 letters, of which 5 are vowels, and 19 are consonants!)

In most other languages, on the first day of school the teacher says, 'Today we are going to learn to read and write. This is the alphabet:' and then the teacher writes the alphabet and the children memorise the alphabet. But usually, the teacher does NOT teach the number of letters in the alphabet.

So the only language for which many ESL students know the number of letters is English, and, when asked the number of letters, most answer '26'. After all, in their own language, letter isn't 'letter', so just the word 'letter' makes them think, 'English letters, 26.'

When I went to Arabic classes, the teacher was terrible. He said, 'You must learn the Arabic alphabet,' then recited it quickly, and said, 'Now you know it. So you can start reading NOW.'

For more than 1,300 years, children who were fortunate enough to be able to study reading and writing Arabic were taught TWO alphabetical orders for the letters. One was the original order the Phoenicians came up with when they invented the Phoenician alphabet. Then, early Islamic scholars came up with a different alphabetical order, but those who already knew the Arabic alphabet in the Phoenician order found it very hard to learn the new order, so they kept using the old order, and told their students the old order was much easier to learn, so the alphabet they memorised was in the old order. Sometime in the past 50 years or so, most schools in the Arab world stopped teaching the old order. The teacher of my Arabic class gave us the old order (not in the textbook) and said we'd find it MUCH easier to learn the Arabic alphabet in that order instead of the proper alphabetical order (meaning, he didn't know anything about teaching or learning).

Of course, I counted, and there are (now) 28 letters in the Arabic alphabet. But Arabic is nothing at all like English, so there are letters that are not in the alphabet (Arabs use completely different words for letters in the alphabet and letters not in the alphabet, and think English should have different words for the different kinds of letters, but it doesn't).

It gets better. Arabic once had just 18 symbols. Kind of like English carved in stone, where one finds MVSEVMs and COVRTs OF IVSTICE, back when English used just 24 symbols for the 26 letters. In the early days of Islam, some Arabs wrote with marks called 'nukta' which makes it clear which of the 28 letters is intended by the 18 symbols. Without nukta, many different letters, e.g. the R and Z, are identical. During the first Islamic century, some Arab scribes used nukta, and some did not.

By the end of the third Islamic century, to make the Noble Koran as easy to read as possible, scribes started adding nukta and tashkeel, making it much easier to know how to recite the words. And today, Noble Korans for reciting also come with a colour code to show reciters the rhythm and meter of each phrase.

Today, for Arabic writing like newspaper articles, Arabs always write the nukta, but not the tashkeel, and no code for the rhythm and meter. So it's hard for a non-Arab who learned the alphabet to know how to pronounce the words in newspaper articles.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Job Interview

I was invited to a job interview (many years ago) by the University of Chicago Circle (sounds like University of Chicago, but it isn't, it's the university where the author of a book about Zen and Motorcycles was teaching when he decided Zen and Motorcycles would be a MUCH better career).

I was met my an Indian (NOT of the Red variety). He said he had to take me to dinner and watch me eat. I said, 'I can't eat while a hungry person is sitting, not eating, and staring at me.'

'What we do, then?'

'Why, exactly, are you going to take me to dinner and watch me eat?'

'Boss say I must take you to Steakhouse. I Hindoo. I not eat meat. So I watch you eat. OK?'

'No, not OK. Take me someplace we can BOTH eat!'

'My boss say I must take you Steakhouse.'

'OK. I'll say we went to the Steakhouse. Now take me somewhere we can BOTH eat.'

'But place I can eat, you cannot eat.'

'Try me.'

So we went to a Hindoo restaurant. He ordered something bland for me, and bindhi massala for himself. 'Bindhi' is Hindoo (or Urdu) for okra. As it says in the Iowa farm journal (or so I was told by a Texas newspaper article), 'Okra is a very important fodder crop. You won't believe this, but in some very primitive cultures, okra is used for human food.'

As it turned out, I ate most of his bindhi massala, and he had to eat whatever it was he ordered for me.

The next day, I met the staff. I already hated them for the way they'd treated the poor Indian (whose name I've long forgotten). Their Phd in Computer Security made a bunch of statements that, while I'm sure they've been published in bad journals, were 110% false. The usual, 'Make users pick passwords that are random sequences of characters and make them change their passwords every week.' Either the users will forget and lose access to their accounts, or they'll write down their passwords where anyone can find them. Bad idea.

They wanted me to teach Pascal. I went to a lecture by the idiot who invented the Pascal language, and he convinced me no one would EVER use Pascal to write a program that actually did anything. They knew I didn't know Pascal, but needed someone with certification to teach it for a semester (they had to have someone with accreditation, or they'd be in big trouble), and then they planned to lay me off. I declined their generous offer.