Monday, 21 December 2009

Review: Connections

Connections, a 10-part series written and presented by James Burke, was first broadcast in 1978. It presents an "alternative view of change", and examines the way in which one invention leads to another.

The main theme of the programme is the interconnectedness between all branches of human endeavour. It is when knowledge from different disciplines is connected that new uses for already-existing technologies produces what we might call invention. From these inventions, stem further inventions, eventually leading up to the technology we see around us.

Through viewing the history of invention as a web rather than a timeline, Burke disassembles the simplistic classroom notion that inventions follow a pattern of linear-development. The whole notion of 'categorising' technological development is questioned. For instance, though it may be possible to draw a 'historical line' from the development of the wheel to the modern automobile, the modern automobile may just as well be at the end of another line of development, for instance, the development of alloys, or machine tools. This might necessitate looking back through the history of combustion and gunpowder or alchemy... and so on.

The series uncovers the various impulses required for invention to take place. The first real invention, states Burke, is the ancient-Egyptian plough. Its invention was necessitated by the need to settle and plant seeds when the ancient nomadic-lifestyle could no longer be maintained. The production of grain necessitated the construction of pots for storage in granaries, which necessitated the development of a writing system so one could tell who's pot was who's. The development of a writing system allowed for a way of recording the patterns of the stars, which became necessary in being able to predict when the Nile would flood...

Though the example I gave above might seem a little deterministic (and beautifully familiar to anyone who has played any game of the Civilization series) it is clear that human creativity and intelligence, rather than just mother necessity, do indeed have a role in invention. For instance, in order for the practical benefits of astronomy to be realised, someone at some point (or many people at many points) will have had to have looked up at the stars on a regular basis and noticed the patterns, and been able to deduce how these fitted in with the world around them.

This ties in with another of Burke's main points: just because we can see the way in which the technology of the past developed, does not mean we can accurately predict how the technology of the future will develop. Yes, we can already ascertain certain technological issues likely to emerge in the near-future: the need for large quantities of clean, renewable energy (e.g. Fusion), the increased understanding of the workings of our own bodies and brains, the potential benefits to exploring our part of the universe. But there is no way of us knowing where the crucial connection will come.

For instance, a common tool of science-fiction is the idea of teleportation. But what does this involve? Our current assumptions of the relationship between the physical body and consciousness would imply that if you were to be destroyed in one part of the universe and recreated atom-for-atom in another part, you would be a 'new' person. But would your consciousness also be 'new'? What would happen to the old one? How do we have any way of knowing based on our current, limited understanding of identity and consciousness? Not only is the technology beyond us, but the philosophy behind it too is beyond our current level of understanding.

Take an historical example. People often laugh at the idea of geocentricism (the Earth being at the centre of the universe) and are surprised that only 400 years ago it was the orthodox opinion. But how many of us, given a telescope, a pad of paper and loads of spare time, would be able to prove that the sun is at the centre of the solar system? How many people still would be able to prove that even the sun was not the centre of the universe?

The answer is... very few. But the reason we find the idea of geocentricism so quaint is not because we have all done the calculations and discovered it for ourselves, but because we have grown up with the idea of geocentricism as part and parcel of a modern education. Thus it does not seem contrary to reason for us, as it is what we are used to.

One of Burke's other main points was that, although conceptually, the interdisciplinary nature of invention remains, the fact is that invention is now the realm of the specialist rather than the gentleman amateur, of the team of experts rather than the lone ponderer sitting on a hill. Would a man like Benjamin Franklin find any role in science today? There is a strange paradox at play. The further technology advances, the less we understand it... but the more we rely upon it. Burke's first episode, which recalls the North-Eastern blackout of 1965 (United States) is a vivid illustration of this.

Let us take ourselves to the present day; you reading this blog. Do you have any idea of the processes involved in getting my thoughts from my keyboard to your eyes? You may know the basic gist of it. Keyboard buttons trigger electronic signals in computer - these signals stored in the memory - the memory represented by 0's and 1's - this data can be sent over the Internet...

But do you know how the electronic signals work? Would you know how to build one from scratch? Do you know someone who can?

Perhaps the best thing about the series is Burke himself. He is fluent and has personality, something lacking in many modern documentaries. Burke tells a good story, and is good at making the viewer feel slightly ashamed of themselves without directly preaching. He delivers with clarity and honesty, and though he seems to get quite excited at times, there is a certain scientific authority behind everything he says.

Friday, 18 December 2009


Had I been in Coventry I probably would not have bothered with a post like this. After all, snow is much more common there than it is in this little South Coast fishing village that we call Brighton.

The snow made an entrée at around 3 o'clock, when I was still doing my chores in town. I was quite embarrassed by the instant satisfaction it seemed to bring everyone. People were saying 'Merry Christmas', et cetera. That isn't depressing in itself, but I felt it rather lame that a thimbleful of snow should be the trigger for such happy gestures. Could they have not waited for it to settle? For only once it settles is it really beautiful and worth celebrating. The 3 o'clock bout of snow only lasted about fifteen minutes and had melted before you could say Jack Robinson.

From 5 till 7 I was working while listening to BBC Radio 2. Chris Evans (who is a nutter) kept reading out texts sent to him from all across the country, all about the same thing: the weather. In Brighton, where we were currently without snow, it seemed quite foreboding, especially when I heard there was snow as near as Southampton and Surrey.

Sure enough, the snow came. At around quarter to nine I could make out the familiar white flakes illuminated by the street light. It took me around half an hour to realise the stuff was actually settling. It didn't stop, and at around 11.20pm I took a walk. I must say, it was amongst the most hostile walks I have taken. Of course, it was a magnificent sight... that which I could make out. But it was practically a blizzard, and the torrent of snow made it impossible to walk, as the direction I wished to walk was against the wind. Soon a wall of snow had formed on my jumper, a wall so well built I had to shake it fairly vigorously to break it off. But the bricks kept coming.

I was only out for about ten minutes, though there were a few others out too, some still trying to make it from A to B, others simply out to enjoy it.

Seeing things at night is one thing. Seeing things in the honest light of day is another. So I set my alarm clock for dawn.

What an awful thing an alarm is to wake up to! There is no sound more frightening to greet the dozy and confused brain. Perhaps someone shouting or screaming, or a cat growling would be worse, but at least they would be natural. The alarm has been designed to alert and scare us. Worst of all, however, is not being woken up by the alarm so much as waking up just before it goes off. This adds the dread of anticipation into the equation.

Which is precisely what happened this morning. Well, it certainly got my heart racing and I had no choice but to get up. Within ten minutes I was out. Brighton under heavy snow is a rare sight to behold. And I really do mean rare. Say, once every five years. We get snow more often than that, but it is seldom cold enough for it to settle. Well, today was an exception. The side roads were full of the stuff, and even the main roads were not immune. The salt managed to ward off the first round of fire, but the onslaught of the ice brigade proved too much for it and it had to yield. The aftermath was eerie. The few cars that went along were virtually silent, only the slightest purr of the engine to be heard. They were almost sliding across. Eerie is the best word, for I feel it signifies an experience that is close to what we are used to, but different in such a way as to make it strange to perceive.

The roads and the pavements were basically one, and one had to watch where one trod. I'd say the snow was about 2 inches deep, or 5 centimetres, though it varied, as there had been some wind, meaning there was more snow on the ground than there was on rooftops or railings.

Returned home at about 8, removed my cap and coat and delighted in the warmth. I did not take any photographs. Do you know why? Because then I would have simply posted them here in the "well, see for yourself" style of presentation. With this done, I might have forgone the effort of writing.

Just realised I never updated you about the MiniFTOPS. All four of us DKSOPERS played the 7-Game but none of us cashed. I'm not suggesting we had an edge there. I made it to the 15-minute blinds part (15 levels in) but went bust in NLHE of all games. A9 versus AJ on a A54 board with two diamonds. Was short. He min-check raised to 2,000. But there was only 4,000 left in my stack so I had to go with it.

Also played the $26 KO six-max with deuce. Like the 7-Game it was a very good structure, but I ended up making a hero shove with TT on a Jack High board. Basically, I put him on AK, but he had QJ. Won a few all ins, but then shoved 89 suited UTG (six-max, remember!) for an M of around 5. Was called by Kings and lost. I think it may have been a shove too far but then I would say that, because I lost. Nevertheless, am working on an essay concerning the exact topic of survival-shoving in tournaments. There is great motivation behind the topic, because the question of "should I shove here of wait for a better spot" comes up in basically every tournament. I embark upon this project with an open mind, and I may be surprised by the conclusions. I hope the other DKSOP playerwriters will read it with an open mind too.

Currently down $155 from my stars adventure, but it's a long term thing so can't be too disappointed just yet. "Oh well".

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Evans Unleashed

Often when I run around the park, I see people walking their dogs. Many of these dogs are unleashed. This isn't really an issue, thankfully, as most of these dogs tend to be small and unthreatening. They're not the sort of dog who will become a news story after mistaking a 3-year old child for a snack.

And 3-year olds were precisely what I saw a few days ago, also in the park. They were from the local nursery, and there were about sixteen of them, being walked along by four teachers. I say 'teachers', I doubt they were going through a GCSE syllabus, but I can not think of a better name to call them. How nice for the children to be getting some fresh air in a park as pleasant as St. Anne's Well Gardens rather than being stuck in a stuffy, artificially-heated little nursery hall. However, then I saw something very sinister. No, it wasn't a paedophile lurking in the bushes. I noticed that the children were on leads. They were literally, being walked along by the teachers. Each lead had around eight children. Let me draw a diagram to demonstrate.

(from bird's eye view)


T = teacher, c = child
- and | represent the rope system by which the children were constrained

I'd never seen anything like this before.

I know it was common in the past to have elasticated reins to stop children from venturing too far from their mothers, but at least these were individual and still allowed some room for manoeuvre. Having the children constrained as a group with virtually no room for manoeuvre seemed very strange, as if a lazy form of mass-parenting. One wonders how the children will ever grow up if they are constrained in such a manner. Perhaps it will become customary. Maybe in the future a new metaphor will be introduced to the English language: "having one's harness removed". This will mean the same as "taking away the training wheels" means today.

Perhaps it would be better for our society... if our dogs were on leashes, and our children were left free.


Returning to the title. It isn't just for the sake of a pun. It's because I will be writing opinions on some things which matter, rather than park politics. I have some books I shall be reviewing, along with some epic documentaries my brother has fed me. I will try to be honest in my thoughts. If I end up writing things which are somehow controversial (amongst the... two people who read this blog) or have not been said before, it is not out of any particular desire to be controversial or original. I will simply be writing what I think.

Stanislaw Lem - The Star Diaries
Jonathan Swift - Gulliver's Travels

Jakob Bronowski - The Ascent of Man
Carl Sagan - Cosmos
James Burke - Connections
Alistair Cooke - America well as few other, shorter programmes or one offs, that have made an impression on me, however slight.

I don't think this has been a very good blog post. The language has been rather lazy, and I have used italics far too frequently, as if that would somehow compensate for the laziness of what has been written. And I use the word 'lazy' twice in two sentences, as if I could not be bothered to think of a synonym. Still, at least I've made the effort to actually finish all the sentences that

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Running Good

Marathon training really isn't easy. As the Brighton Marathon website warns, it's basically the hardest physical task available to the common man. But I've now committed myself to it. Yesterday I received notification from the Alzheimer's Society that they had no places left, and that I would be notified again sometime in January as to whether they would be able to accrue any more places. Obviously I can't wait that long. Training has begun and I want to start raising funds as soon as possible. So I phoned Cancer Research UK and got a place with them. It's official. I am going to run the Brighton Marathon.
At the bottom of this post is a little poem from Phil Hellmuth. Not sure if it was written by Phil Hellmuth Sr. or Jr. But I often repeat that last two lines to myself when running. Have always been a fan of Hellmuth, not because of his 'PokerBrat' persona, which is pretty contrived anyway in my honest opinion, but because he wins. As for my own winning? Well, MTT variance is a bitch. Roll currently $503, and the only reason it's that high is that I've had a decent run in STTs and cash, where your edge doesn't take quite so long to reveal itself. But I already know I have a large edge at low stakes MTTs. It's how I got my bankroll to where it is in the first place.

Watched Alistair Cooke's thirteen-part 1972 series America recently, in rapid succession. Was the visual equivalent of a book/puppy you don't want to put down. Will write some more detailed thoughts on this, along with other series I've watched/books I've read recently, in separate, more detailed blog posts. Bought Matt Mattros's The Making of a Poker Player yesterday, in Borders, who are currently on a 30% sale. I go there quite frequently, and might be commissioned to snap up a few shelves once the going gets really tough. I missed the opportunity last year when Woolworths collapsed. Also, Harrington on Cash (Vol. 1) arrived today. Beautiful book.
Here is the poem, I mentioned:

The Universe Conspired to Help
The man had a dream He knew what he wanted, it seems- Once he was sure in his heart this was it He vowed Someday that he would achieve it- He Wasn't quite ready to do his thing But he felt pretty certain what the future would bring- When one day the time was right When he was ready to fight the good fight- He conquered all his excuses and set forth To take the risk-fraught first step without any remorse- Once he took the first step down the line The universe conspired to help make sure he was fine- He never dreamed he would accomplish so much That the universe would give him such incredible luck- Now older and wiser he understood the hardest part Was convincing himself it was time to start. -Phil Hellmuth-

Monday, 7 December 2009

Poker Updates

Came 3rd in a 1000-person $4.40 4-max MTT for $280. Dominated my table(s) throughout, even on the occasions where I got short stacked. It seemed most of my opponents were simply unable to adapt to the dynamics of four-handed play. Was fairly action-filled, and average stack for most of the tournament hovered around 50BB. The final push for first was rather slow. Eventually I took a flip with the big stack at the Final Table and lost. Had won a few flips earlier on, but I think I owe much of the success to value betting more aggressively than normal; generally pushing my edges harder.

I know have a permaroll on Stars, so am trying to expand it using effective bankrolling.

Currently at $528. Will update every so often.

Wrote some poker-literature which I sent to three of my friends. One has read it and said it was a "good read" - presumably with pun intended. Another has replied that he will read it soon, and the other hasn't even bothered to reply. It's fairly short (8,000 words) and is just a few mini essays on some of the few topics on which I can speak authoritatively, such as not being a complete idiot and losing your bankroll on a frequent basis just because you have ego issues.

MiniFTOPS soon! Realised my LHE game needs a lot of practice, so have swallowed my pride and am practising the fundamentals at $0.25/$0.50 on Stars. 1,000 big bets is an ample cushion. I reckon the most fundamental difference between it and NLHE is that the blinds represent a large chunk of the average pot, and must be contested if you are to survive. I was definitely playing too tight before this and basically just getting blinded to death, entering pots as if I were catching air in a ceiling of a sinking ship, almost in denial to the fact that I was going to drown anyway.

Christmas tree will be up on Wednesday. Should be good.