Archive for May, 2008

The snake cube puzzle lessons

Friday, May 30th, 2008

Snake cube puzzle

The conscious mind can be so dumb sometimes and our intuition so powerful.

This puzzle was handed to me by my son, unravelled and without instructions. I attempted to reform the cube but after many hours of trial and error it defeated me.

Humbled, I Googled the puzzle and found the solution. The solution is unique, only one particular sequence of moves will work. I demonstrated this knowledge to the rest of the family then forgot about the puzzle.

Some months later, it came to my attention again when I found it unravelled. Confidently I attempted to reform the cube. My confidence quickly crumbled as I realised I had forgotten the sequence. It must be one of those stupid pride switches in the brain that made me resolve to reform the cube without any assistance from the internet. Rationally, I should have just repeated the Google search but stubbornness made me take the hard route.

An hour later I had learned a couple of valuable lessons.

Lesson one.
I was certain how the puzzle had to be started, so my first position was always the same but no matter how many times I tried to form the cube I got one of several incorrect results. I simply repeated the same mistakes thinking I might spot where I was going wrong. Humans are pretty dumb sometimes. Eventually I became so frustrated I unthinkingly tore at the puzzle.

Lesson two.
After I had had my little tantrum I noticed the snake was in a configuration I wasn’t used to seeing. Another few moves and the snake was snugly coiled back into the cube form. Working backwards I tried to see where I had been going wrong. To my amazement, the error was in my very first position, the one I had been so sure about and which I never questioned. That massive assumption cost me an hour of frustration. But the real lesson was this, by giving up on the conscious attempt to solve the puzzle my subconscious side took over which clearly remembered the correct sequence. Here was a dramatic reminder that some folklore, such as sleep on the problem, holds good.

A bum note

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Most people would be able to detect a bum note. The bum note is just another note, but In a Western musical scale only certain notes are ‘allowed’ to be played alongside each other. It is like a game, with its own rules. Anything outside the ‘allowed’ scale of notes is considered a bum note.

Over the centuries we have followed and understood this game so that we now find it difficult to imagine any other game.

So when we hear a Chinese musical scale we are at a loss. The scale is incomprehensible to our ears and we puzzle over the idea that anyone can enjoy this ‘music’ which seems to be full of bum notes. To the Chinese however, it is beautiful music (I will have to enquire if the Chinese find our music equally incomprehensible when they first encounter it. Logic dictates that they should).

Music is only sounds which exhibit a pattern. How we interpret these patterns is culturally conditioned. What else is culturally conditioned? How can we identify them? Does it take an outsider to point them out or can we figure it out for ourselves? Does the music/art/philosophy of any culture limit itself to what it considers to be harmonious notes?

But it is the bum notes which give meaning to the other notes.

Why we make mistakes

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

Watching my son learning to ride his bicycle the other day, I got a flash of insight about human psychology and an explanation for this banana tragedy.

He was learning to ride his bicycle at the same time as his younger sister and they were both circling the limits of an empty play area. At one point I could see my son was cycling too close to his sister. From my own experiences with a bicycle, I could see the imminent collision. My ‘vision’ of the inevitable collision could only come from experience. I had done the same sort of thing myself, probably several times, and so could predict the outcome.

My son lacked that experience and as I watched him sail clumsily and inexorably into his sister I realised that I couldn’t help him in any way. Even if I had given him extensive advice and descriptions about the dangers of riding a bicycle, it would only have become meaningful to him when he had experienced it for himself – “ah! Now I know what he was talking about!”. He had to crash in order to understand the mechanics of crashing and would therefore recognise the process of crashing should it happen again.

That, I realised, was the tragedy of the human race. We each have to make the same mistakes as our elders and no generation ever learns from history.

Actually no, I did manage to help my children. I made sure they were both wearing helmets before they got on their bikes. This is akin to some wise old women storing the seed from a valuable food source; they know the profligate younger generation will want to consume the lot with no thought for the future.

The appliance of science

Monday, May 19th, 2008

Have you ever tried to open a jar with your bare hands and found it impossible? Using rationalism and its problem solving properties, you can explain why it is so difficult to open.

The flesh of a human palm is usually smooth and slightly greasy. This means the grip on the jar lid (usually smooth metal) is insufficient to get any decent torque. To overcome this inefficiency we naturally grip tighter on the tin lid which, being so flimsy, squeezes onto the glass adding more friction between the glass and the lid making it more difficult to turn and so we grip tighter in a self defeating loop.

Once observed and understood, the identified problem – insufficient friction between flesh and tin lid – can be addressed.

The solution is to increase the friction between flesh and metal by using a suitable material placed between the two. A readily available material is rubber which requires no preparation or involved removal. Either use a rubber glove when gripping the lid or place a rubber band around the lid before gripping it with your bare hand. Anyone who has tried this little trick will testify to its efficacy – as if by magic the lid twists off with hardly any effort.

This may be a useful household tip but it is also a metaphor for the scientific method which can so dramatically improve our lives. To recap;

  • Study the problem
  • Observe all the mechanisms involved, carefully following the sequence of events. The more you learn the better.

  • Create your hypothesis
  • Basically, make an educated guess as to what you think is happening.

  • Test your hypothesis
  • Once the process is reasonably well understood (some things are too complex to surrender so easily to the scientific method) experiments can be carried out which test the understanding. These experiments either work, which demonstrate the understanding is probably sound (but not certain) or they don’t, which means going back and observing more closely the original problem. Of course, you often get results which are unexpected and so raise more questions than answers.

    Such is the history of science.

    The machines take over

    Friday, May 16th, 2008

    A recent news item highlighted a problem with credit card fraud. If you do something unusual with your credit card, like go on holiday somewhere exotic, the software which analyses your spending habits will flag up a warning on the company’s computer which will then block your card.

    Okay, not a bad security measure against fraud you might think, but what do you do when you do go on holiday somewhere exotic?

    The obvious thing to do is to inform the credit card company that you are about to go on holiday and that your card will be in a specified location between certain dates. Simple.

    Except that doesn’t work. The news item did not explain why the staff at the credit card company do not act on the information when it is given to them but it doesn’t take an economist to work out why they don’t; it’s probably too unwieldy, too complex and too expensive to adapt the software.

    Can anybody else see the thick end of the wedge here? We’re moving into HAL territory, the psychotic computer in ‘2001, a space odyssey’.

    The machines are starting to control our behaviour. To continue the movie theme… ‘Be afraid. Be very afraid.’

    The language of art

    Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

    Abstract art by Ivor Tymchak

    After completing a painting, the excited artist had someone come view it. The viewer admired it for a few moments then asked the artist what it meant. The bemused artist replied that if she could verbalise what she was trying to express, she would have written a book instead.

    Recently, I was visiting a large municipal art gallery and I entered an exhibition room. At least I think it was an exhibition, as it had a bored attendant guarding the room. Apart from myself, he was the only person in the room. The room itself was filled with flat pack furniture that had carelessly been half assembled by ten year old children with attention deficit syndrome. At least that is what it looked like. My first thought was, ‘what does this mean?’ My next reaction was to look for a sign that explained it all for me.

    So, was I being stupid or had the artist failed to communicate? I think the answer is more like this.

    Art is a language like any other. To communicate, everyone has to understand the language and so basic words, concepts, structures et-cetera are agreed to mean something. And so it is with art, with representational art being the basic language. As people become specialised in certain fields however, they begin to develop a more advance language with new words, subtle nuances, specific ideas, acronyms et-cetera. People outside of this sphere will find any conversation difficult to follow because they are not familiar with the extended language.

    Eventually you can get a field of study that is so specialised and insular, that only those working within the field can understand what is going on at all. The extreme result of this process is where only the author of a particular text or speech can understand what is being said (and so, by definition, there is now no communication).

    This is what happened in the exhibition room. I had no doubt that the artist had a train of thought which eventually led him to the pieces he had produced, but I couldn’t understand the language because it was too far removed from my familiar territory. Maybe some art critics could understand the language, otherwise, why would they have given him some space in the gallery?

    The great trick, of course, is to make any art work on many levels. As in literature, you can tell a simple story which everyone can understand at one basic level, but the more perceptive practitioners of the language may see allegory and symbolism in the text or images. For them it works on several levels and thus becomes a profound story.

    A piece of art either takes you to another place metaphysically, or it doesn’t, in which case it is then just a pile of material. An explanation may help but it would be analogous to having to explain a joke to someone. Ultimately, the piece has to stand alone.

    This is why I advocate that all labels are removed from works of art in galleries and only numbers are assigned. The labels are a distraction from the true visceral moment of reflection when considering the artwork. If someone really wants to find out more about a work then they have to make a note of the number and consult a book at the exit of the gallery. That way, it becomes an intellectual exercise after the event.

    How to attract someone’s attention

    Monday, May 12th, 2008

    Tell them something they don’t know, about a subject which they do know a lot about.

    These four men terrify me

    Thursday, May 8th, 2008

    Out of Africa painting by Ivor Tymchak

    It is what they represent.

    When I look at this image, something deep inside of me stirs. It goes way, way back to the reptilian brain, behind the wall of consciousness. I’m reminded of something. Something incredibly precious which I once owned but now have lost. It is such an old memory that I have to trust my gut, as my consciousness refuses to acknowledge it.

    As with the concept of death, my sense of self cannot accept the idea that I have travelled so far from the sacred place where communion with the whole of nature was a permanent gift. The question of meaning was as difficult a concept to grasp then, as the idea of oneness with the universe, is today.

    The loneliness is unbearable.

    This is why we create art. It is a palliative for the pain of separation from the rest of the universe.

    The self development myth

    Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

    A famous writer was once visiting an American campus and he asked his eager audience, “Who wants to be a writer?’

    The vast majority of the audience put their hand up.

    “Why aren’t you all at home writing then?” asked the speaker.

    Exactly the same question could be levelled at the people who buy self development books.

    If you want to climb mountains, you practice by climbing small hills and then work upwards to your ultimate goal. The only reading involved, is usually an acquisition of knowledge to prevent yourself from committing the most common mistakes made by novice climbers, although the most powerful lessons are always learned from real mistakes (if they don’t kill you).

    When I had the ambition to perform stand up comedy, I wrote my jokes, performed them endlessly in the mirror until finally I went on stage and discovered that I had learnt precisely nothing about stand up comedy. You only begin to learn when you are actually performing in front of a live audience. That’s because making people laugh requires, well.. people. And it is they who teach you. Similarly, if you want to climb mountains, it is the mountain which teaches you, not books. It is only in this true experience where the development takes place.

    The experienced comedians I spoke to knew this and they would always talk about ’stage time’ – the amount of time you had actually spent in front of a live audience – in the same way that pilots would talk about ‘flying hours’. It was the only statistic which mattered. The stuff in your front room was merely preparing something to say for when you are on stage.

    If you are really interested in something, you will already be doing it, not endlessly researching it.

    Let’s take a fairly simple (and probably common) self development goal; losing weight. This looks simple but when you start investigating all the factors involved it becomes a morass of influences and drivers.

    The truth is, a diet is for life. There is no point in your weight see-sawing wildly throughout your life. It’s not good for your health and it points to psychological issues. Overeating is caused by many factors, principally, diet and lifestyle. Being overweight then, is a complex business, simply losing weight as a goal is not enough. If you manage to lose some weight through an unpleasant process of self denial and drugs, for example, what happens once the weight is lost? If the goal was simply to lose a certain amount of weight and then put it straight back on, what has that achieved in self development terms, other than demonstrating you have a certain amount of will power?

    If the goal was to achieve an ideal weight and then maintain that weight for the rest of your life, then a regime of unpleasant self denial and drugs is not going to be a pleasant prospect. The fixation with food needs to be replaced with a genuine passion for something else which forces a change in lifestyle, something like mountain climbing for instance.

    But of course, genuine passions can’t be manufactured; you’re either doing it or you’re not.