A Daily Diatribe by a Pompous Git

Who is that fat bastard? A Sturm's Eye View, Guaranteed Free of Harmful, or Potentially Harmful Chemicals -- but Watch Out for the Ideas! Some of them are Contagious! 

A journal of sorts to record Jonathan Sturm's (and others') thoughts and observations on things worth thinking about. Feedback welcome, but be aware that unless you prominently say you want your communication kept private, I may publish it.

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Monday 18 February 2002

Yesterday, Marguerite and I visited our neighbour, Kevin Perkins. Kevin makes fine furniture, possibly the finest furniture in Australia. Certainly it's the finest I have ever seen. Consequently, I was eagerly looking forward to this visit to his home and workshop, the first in a decade. Mostly, we met when our children were at primary school as we were all active in school affairs. The purpose of yesterday's visit was to borrow some slides for a publishing project.

Fortunately, most of the transparencies Kevin has are large format, too large for my scanner. This limited the time spent selecting three candidates for the needs of my client. One never wants to give a client too many choices. It confuses them and makes the decision take too long. We talked a little about Kevin's eclectic owner-built home while we sat in the large kitchen eating crackers with tomatoes and slices of camembert cheese accompanied by tea. The Perkins' budgie perched on my shoulder and asked me: "Who's a naught boy then," and proceeded to groom me.

Talk as ever turned to the use/abuse of Tasmania's timber resource, but not before Marguerite asked the question she had been dying to ask: "What was your reaction to the Prime Minister replacing the furniture you had made for the office he was occupying in Parliament House with something he deemed more in keeping with the dignity of the office?"

Kevin said he was flattered, he has so little respect for the man. I laughed and said that I thought that might have been so, but wasn't it John Howard's She Who Must Be Obeyed, who made the decision? "Of course," said Kevin, and pointed out that the furniture he had made in consultation with the architect wasn't "gone", just waiting in storage for the next occupant of the highest office in the country. Of course he, or she, would be equally at liberty to bring their own furniture into Parliament House and temporarily remove his work.

Of more concern to Kevin was the furniture being made locally to add to the building's collection. These carpenters make pieces they believe are in keeping with the overall design style, but haven't any real clue and make often quite ugly pieces. The keeper of the furniture inventory was quite upset when this was pointed out to her, as she is another that's blind to the underlying aesthetics.

So it was on to looking at the pieces that Kevin is making for the new cathedral at Parramatta. Kevin's portion of the project will take three years and we looked at some of the furniture completed so far. He showed us also the small models he made and how they could be taken apart and reassembled in a slightly different fashion. The client had choices, but the fashioning of the components would be the same, so there was no change to the costing of the project.

Better displayed for our viewing pleasure was a companion piece to one in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, but this one didn't have a "Do Not Touch" sign, so with Kevin's permission, I operated the drawers in the cabinet and ran my fingers over the perfectly executed dovetail joints. The pleasure was, to say the least, exquisite.

I thought of Robert M Persig's writing in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where he talks about the mysterious Q factor, the ability to perceive quality, but the difficulty of defining it. And that took me back to yesterday's thoughts about infant brain-wiring. Was John Howard, the man American writer, Bill Bryson described as "having all of the personality of a funeral director" prevented by his early upbringing from perceiving that quality in Kevin's work that leaves so many of us in awe? Or was it his peevish nature that led him to be so boorish?

I remembered also the first time I had seen a piece of Kevin's, some months before we moved to Franklin. For no short space of time, I stood and gazed in awe at what I believe to be the finest piece of furniture I have ever seen in my life. It was a cabinet almost two metres (6 ft) tall with gently curving sides. My poverty prevented me purchasing it there and then, but I would treasure the memory of having the privilege of seeing it for the rest of my days. It held all the enchantment of Tom Roberts' The Bush Burial, the amazing triptych that captivates me for an hour, or so at Victoria's Art Gallery in St Kilda Road whenever I visit Melbourne.

Not for me, the shock of the new -- rather the long thread that connects this work to the bust of Egyptian queen, Nefretiti and earlier, the cave paintings at Lascaux.

Thought for the day:

Every great work of art has two faces, one toward its own time and one toward the future, toward eternity.

Daniel Barenboim

Current Listening

Vaughan Williams -- Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis


Tuesday 19 February 2002

My friend Roland was still dissatisfied with my responses to his questions:

Again, that's interesting, but not helpful. I'm not asking for real in an absolute sense. What are some things that appear to you to be an aspect of reality? What are some other things that appears to you to not be an aspect of reality? Can you give me three of each?


So I wrote:

The cigarette I just lit, the lighter I lit it with and the computer monitor I am looking at, all appear to be real. Note that I haven't argued against the existence of reality, just that I don't believe in an objective reality. Unreal "things" is difficult, if by things you mean objects. Have I ever perceived anything that wasn't really there? A hallucination? I can recall an event in my childhood that my mother claims never occurred. Is she correct, or me? I have no way of knowing as I can recall only the two of us there and there is no recording of it. I am reminded here of Stephen Jay Gould's recollection of sitting on some steps discussing baseball with his uncle when he was a child. In adulthood, he discovered the steps at the location he recalled had in fact never existed. His memory was apparently a synthesis created by his mind. I would be very much surprised if that hadn't happened in mine.

I could say that the mediaeval concept of planetary movement being caused by angels pushing on the planets was unreal, but it was real to the people who believed that. By analogy, I suspect that my belief in the dual particle-wave nature of matter may seem equally improbable to some future mind. Certainly most people I come across have no idea of Quantum physics. To them it's unreal.

Even though I may believe the angels pushing planets didn't exist, the concept certainly did and had a profound influence on human behaviour and thinking. The idea of cause and effect gave rise to what we now call science. It was the "Quantum physics" of the day!

And a later thought:

Thinking more about the planet-pushing angels. To the mediaevals, they were a convenient way of explaining an observed phenomenon. The angels were not detectable. We observe electrons change energy levels and explain that as emission and absorption of photons. Photons are not detectable except as electrons changing their energy levels. You can't explain something in terms of itself. Well, you can, but it's not very convincing

Thought for the day:

Reality is nothing but a collective hunch.

Lily Tomlin

Current Listening

Jethro Tull -- Living in the Past


Wednesday 20 February 2002

There's an old adage that knowledge does not bring wisdom. No less is this so than in the sciences where the accumulation of knowledge is prized above all else. Knowledge without wisdom is, while not worthless, pretty damned close at times. I'll give a couple of examples.

Italian peasant winemakers were taken to task for pouring some of their best wine onto the ground under the grapevines. "Why do you do this?" asked the scientists. "Oh, it makes the gods of the vines happy so we can carry on making excellent wine," said the peasants. "Superstitious nonsense!" said the scientists, "You could be selling that wine instead of wasting it on non-existent gods". So, the peasants stopped their superstitious nonsense and slowly, but inexorably, the quality of their wine, not to mention the money they received for it, diminished.

What the peasants were doing was inoculating the grapes with the best of their yeast with their sacrifice to the wine gods. When they stopped, the wild yeasts took over, and as any winemaker can tell you, when wild yeast ferments your grapes, the results are far from satisfactory. What the scientists missed in their condemnation of the peasants "superstitious nonsense" was context. Context is a dirty word in scientific circles. It smacks of things like, well, quality for instance. Quality can't be measured, so obviously it doesn't exist. Try telling that to a confirmed wine-bibber!

The germ theory of disease would have you believe that the germ (bacterium, or virus) causes the disease. Never will you find a respectable scientist who will admit that this just ain't so. Think of Legionaire's disease. The bacterium that causes this is prevalent in your garden soil, never mind water-cooling towers associated with air conditioning, yet only a very few people ever contract the disease. If the bacterium were the cause, then everyone exposed (most of us) would contract the disease. Since we manifestly don't, there must be other predisposing factors to the disease -- differing genes, immune systems, nutritional levels etc.

Modern medicine makes much of having valiantly brought our bodies into an unprecedented state of health compared with our forebears. What they don't mention is that this also coincided with an unprecedented improvement of general nutrition and sanitation. Not that germ-killing necessarily does much good. It's worth noting that hospitals spend a huge amount of money on killing disease organisms, but are also the best place to go to catch a disease that's really resistant to being killed by modern medicine. For a pre-medical-revolution view of population health versus prosperity (i.e. nutritional levels), William Cobbet's Rural Rides is a fascinating account.

What is missing from the strictly scientific point of view is context. Most scientists cannot see outside their own little corner of science to see a wider picture. An example of this was when I was at a field day for improving pasture production. I said to the scientist leading it, "But that will decrease the health of the livestock and lead to increased veterinary bills that will cost more than the improved productivity of the  regime you are urging". His reply was: "That's not my area; that's an animal health issue. I'm only here to increase grass production!" The quality of the grass was irrelevant. The health of the livestock was irrelevant. The farmers were told that a 20% per annum stock loss was "acceptable".

The origin of this rant was being compared to Creation scientists for refusing to unconditionally believe in photons. My scepticism is, or rather was, shared by Richard Feynman:

"One might still like to ask: 'How does it work? What is the machinery behind the law?' No one has found any machinery behind the law." 


"For the time being the most natural interpretation seems to me to be that the occurrence of electromagnetic fields of light is associated with singular points just like the occurrence of electrostatic fields according to the electric theory. It is not out of the question that in such a theory the entire energy of the electromagnetic field might be viewed as localized in these singularities... [Emphasis mine]. Note that photons weren't invented until 1926. "I therefore take the liberty of proposing for this hypothetical new atom, which is not light but plays an essential part in every process of radiation, the name photon." From a letter by Gilbert Lewis to Nature in 1926.

If these two giants of 20th century science were unwilling to confuse their models with reality, then I am too! I note that while the theoretical structures these theoretical physicists certainly overlap, there are fundamental contradictions between them. And I don't for one instant believe that these are the only viable theoretical models from the phase space of all theoretical models that explain the behaviour of the world. After a century of development, they are certainly showing their age -- the ever expanding zoo of fundamental particles for instance. This reminds me very much of the epicycles the Greeks used to explain planetary motion. It will take a Copernicus to see things from a hitherto unsuspected perspective.

Dr David Viner from CRU in East Anglia, writing in Spiked-Science said:

"Those who still believe... (there is no human-induced climate change) are in a way removing themselves from serious scientific debate, and as a result should be ignored and pilloried."

Ignoring for a moment the tortured use of the English language here, we see something more akin to the attitude of the mediaeval priesthood than the work of science. The paraphrase for the above is: "If you refuse to accept the reality of the Global Climate Models and insist that they be made consistent with actual measurements we will ignore/pay-attention-to-you-in-a-nasty-way [delete whichever is inapplicable]. The bearer of new and different ideas that will bring change is unwelcome. The boundaries have been drawn -- information about areas beyond those boundaries will be ignored.

This problem of "you will believe our pronouncements (regardless of any inconsistencies), or else" is not confined to climate science. What I find particularly disconcerting is the general lack of interest in formulating new theories of knowledge, what science is about. Karl Popper's work, largely ignored and certainly misunderstood by many scientists is an excellent foundation. His most important point, I believe, is that to qualify as scientific, a statement must be falsifiable, that is, capable of being disproved. I don't see much attempt at disproof from scientists, just hunting for ever more reinforcement for current models, while ignoring any contradictory evidence. This, to me, bears more resemblance to Creation Science than it does to the kind of science exemplified by the likes of Einstein and Feynman.


From Tim Cunningham:

You wrote: "The cigarette I just lit, the lighter I lit it with and the computer monitor I am looking at, all appear to be real. Note that I haven't argued against the existence of reality, just that I don't believe in an objective reality."

If reality itself is not objective, as opposed to our perceptions of it which are subjective to greater or lesser extents, how does anybody else know that you are objective?


Tim Cunningham

Of course they can't know that I am objective. What they can know is that we are able to perceive things in a similar, but not identical way. Just as Quantum Mechanics and Relativity are overlapping maps of reality, individual humans have overlapping maps of reality. Since all we know of reality is through perception, any theory of knowledge that ignores this is flawed.

While some are taking it that I am saying (with no justification) that the Emperor has no clothes, I am not. He has a wardrobe full of old clothes that seem as quaint to us today as the 6 inch platform shoes I used to wear 30 years ago. The clothes he is wearing today are looking a little careworn and have far too many patches. Denying the possibility of a new set of clothes makes no sense to me.

Quoting Jack Cohen:

"Is there one physics? This relates to post-Modern stances, to questions about the "Theory of Everything" and its utility if invented (found?). If there are many equally-congruent webs of theory at the physical "level" (perhaps even non-overlapping) then our parochial starting-with-the-electron one, with its successively deeper levels of fundamental particles, is digging its roots down into a progressively exclusive view, not generalizing but limiting our ability to extend intellectual frontiers. As we extend the zoo of particles, our commitment to this classification is reinforced (and the balancing of mathematical equations, rather than disproof, is the task at hand). This is a biological stance, perhaps inappropriate to the mathematically-tied theories of physics (what Stewart and I called the "Sherlock Holmes Stories", each self-consistent but not universal in application)."


Back to more mundane topics for a few days after this. I do have some interesting thoughts on photons and context -- thoughts that occurred to me while reading through the scientific literature of the last century or two.

Today I have a dental appointment. When the receptionist telephoned yesterday to remind me, I said: "I'm looking forward to it." She responded: "Surely you are are joking Mr Sturm!" I enjoyed that almost as much as my favourite book: Surely You Are Joking Mr Feynman!

Thought for the day:

Never mistake knowledge for wisdom. One helps you make a living; the other helps you make a life.

Sandara Carey

Current Listening

Richard Strauss -- Thus Spoke Zarathustra


Thursday 21 February 2002

Yesterday's visit to the dentist has little of merit to report, other than giving me some time to ponder and think. As it happens, I thought somewhat about science and where it appears to be going. I disagree with John Horgan, author of The End of Science, that we have discovered all the really important stuff and all that remains is to dot the Is and cross the Ts. By the same token, I agree with him that the search for a Grand Unified Theory, or Theory of Everything is likely a wild goose chase, though for different reasons and we will return to that towards the end of this piece.

Prior to Newton's adaptation of Kepler's discovery that the planets appear to move in elliptical orbits around the sun, planetary motion was predicted through a model in which the planets and other bodies moved in epicycles. Plato first proposed the epicycle model and it was refined by Ptolemy nearly two thousand years ago. I was taught, and no doubt you were too, that the reason for the success of Newton's theory was its success at predicting planetary motion. This is not true. By Newton's time, the model had been refined to a high degree. If a planet was found to be wandering from its predicted place, it was a relatively trivial matter to add an epicycle to bring it back into alignment.

Newton's model was conceptually simple, much easier than imagining (visualising) the complex series of wheels within wheels, within wheels... When it comes to working out planetary motions using f=ma, once you get to more than two bodies, the calculations are far from simple. You are, to all intents and purposes, back to a similar kind of recursion as you had with the epicycles. 

Jim Walker writes [emphasis mine]:

"In 1912 a Danish physicist, Niels Bohr came up with a theory that said the electrons do not spiral into the nucleus and came up with some rules for what does happen. (This began a new approach to science because for the first time rules had to fit the observation regardless of how they conflicted with the theories of the time.)

Bohr said, "Here's some rules that seem impossible, but they describe the way atoms operate, so let's pretend they're correct and use them." Bohr came up with two rules which agreed with experiment:

RULE 1: Electrons can orbit only at certain allowed distances from the nucleus.

RULE 2: Atoms radiate energy when an electron jumps from a higher-energy orbit to a lower-energy orbit. Also, an atom absorbs energy when an electron gets boosted from a low-energy orbit to a high-energy orbit."

Later, Werner Heisenberg, originator of the Uncertainty Principle in 1927, claimed that "the idea of an objective real world whose smallest parts exist objectively in the same sense as stones or trees exist, independently of whether or not we observe them ... is impossible ..."

[W. Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy, Harper and Row, New York (1958).]

And "We can no longer speak of the behavior of the particle independently of the process of observation. As a final consequence, the natural laws formulated mathematically in quantum theory no longer deal with the elementary particles themselves but with our knowledge of them. Nor is it any longer possible to ask whether or not these particles exist in space and time objectively."

[W. Heisenberg, The Physicist's Conception of Nature, translated by A. J. Pomerans, Harcourt Brace, New York (1958).]

While attempts have been made to de-subjectify Quantum Mechanics, most notably by Murray Gell-Mann and Karl Bohm, I am not convinced that you can. The claim to Quantum Mechanics being the True Objective Reality we have always sought is largely based on its unprecedented accuracy at prediction. Could we in all seriousness take the epicycle model of planetary motion as reflecting objective reality at the time because of its unprecedented accuracy at prediction?

Perhaps my biggest misgivings about modern physics is the hubris of its practitioners. They are working, they cheerfully tell us, on a Theory of Everything. This theory will unify all the known physical forces and enable us to predict just about anything from the mystical mathematical equation underlying everything. This sounds suspiciously like God to me and Australian physicist, Paul Davies has said as much in his book, The Mind of God.

In pursuit of the possibility of a Theory of Everything, let's have a look at a smaller Universe where the rules are simpler. Chess will do. Thirty two pieces with set rules and a limited space to move in. A Theory of Everything for this miniature Universe shouldn't be too hard for mathematicians and physicists dreaming that they can do the same for a real Universe full of stuff. But it is. Perhaps I am being unfair. Let's try a simpler Universe.

Perhaps you have played with Conway's cellular automata game called Life. There's another called Langton's ant:

"Langton's ant is a cellular automaton which poses a problem that is currently baffling mathematicians. The ant lives by three simple rules:

- If it is on a yellow cell it makes a 90 turn to the left. 
- If it is on a grey cell it makes a 90 turn to the right. 
- As it moves to the next square, the one that it is on changes colour from yellow to grey, or the reverse.

The result is a quite complicated and apparently chaotic motion... but after about ten thousand moves the ant locks into a cycle of 104 moves which causes it to build a broad diagonal "highway". What's more, the ant seems to always build the highway (though nobody has been able to prove this yet) even if "obstacles" of yellow squares are scattered in its path, provided it finds enough grey squares on the periphery."

You can play with Langton's ant for yourself through the above link. If a Theory of Everything is too difficult for Langton's ant country, why the hell should I take modern physicists seriously? I said yesterday that the Emperor is wearing clothes, but when he insists on wearing a pink tutu and waving a stick with a star made of aluminium foil on the end of it, I can't help but roll on the floor with laughter.

Thoughts for the day:

Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation but as a question.

Niels Bohr

Mathematics is the only religion that can prove it is a religion.

Paul Barrow

Current Listening

Daevid Allen -- Camembert Electrique


Friday 22 February 2002

One of the problems I face in expressing my thoughts stems from my internal brain-wiring and subsequent conditioning. I have long carried an innate suspicion that the two-valued, true-or-false, either-or logic of my upbringing and much of what I read and hear, was not up to the task of explaining my thoughts and feelings about the complex world we live in. My distrust of dividing thoughts into subjective "unreality" versus objective "reality" does not come from any mystical belief system. Rather I have always maintained an experimental approach to life and living. 

Separating my self from the cultural baggage I carry required much effort, thinking about my responses rather than merely reacting automatically and involved a not inconsiderable amount of backsliding. It appears that adopting a change in language use may help in this regard. Rather than attempt an explanation myself, I refer you to Toward Understanding E-Prime by Robert Anton Wilson.

You may also find this essay on the lack of a need for belief interesting. Adopting and having faith in another's beliefs prevents the necessity for thought. While autopilot mode results in a comfortable life, its opposite makes for a more interesting one. 

Thought for the day:

Logic works, metaphysics contemplates.

Joseph Joubert

Current Listening

Kitaro -- Silk Road


Sunday 24 February 2002

It appears to be my nature to make provocative statements and today's is a reiteration: I do not believe the germ theory adequately describes what we commonly call disease. While certain diseases always have certain germs (bacteria, fungi, viruses etc) associated with them, pneumococcus with pneumonia for example, this by no means demonstrates that the organism is the cause of the disease. We will take parasitic worms in sheep for an example.

Several decades ago, scientists developed chemicals called anthelmintics to control parasitic worms in sheep. Until then, farming sheep such that they were not disabled by them required considerable management skills. Anthelmintics, magic bullets to kill parasitic worms, removed the apparent necessity for management skills and reduced costs. Unfortunately, parasitic worms possess genes for just such an eventuality and rapidly developed resistance to the anthelmintic. The scientists responded by developing different anthelmintics, mirroring what happens in nature, but nature has a larger repertoire and sheep now carry a larger worm burden than before the introduction of anthelmintics. New ones in development require considerable refinement before farmers can use them. It appears that temporarily removing the parasites from the sheep population enabled susceptibility to proliferate in sheep flocks.

Contrast this with the organic sheep farmer's methods of parasitic worm control: breeding sheep that possess resistance to worms, maintaining nutrient levels in the sheep to maximise their natural resistance and grazing systems that reduce the opportunity for reinfection. Seen in this light, we can equally describe the disease as the absence of management.

For an interesting take on disease, I heartily recommend Matt Ridley's The Red Queen.


From Bo Leuf:

You know, if you keep up those postings, you're going to find that you have the material for a Zen and the Art of House-Building, or a Tasmanian Git's Guide to Groking Most Anything But Mostly With Healthy Scepticism ... :)

Actually an enjoyable romp as you stomp the absolutist belief patterns that pass for science and applied research these days. Will never get you popular however. Still, it's good to remind people that the foremost thinkers of our times, the scientists who laid the groundwork for our achievements, were so qualified in their statemnts. The standard textbooks give these theories and discoveries such an illusion of inevitable progress towards "TRUTH" that they are often literally unreadable. And sometimes downright "wrong" both in fact and attribution.

Perhaps the clearest example of the dangers of traditional scientific belief, and the way it's taught, came when I was studying at University. For a Physics lab, our 2nd year class had the pleasure of determining the mass of an electron. You would think this was pretty straight forward; more a demonstration than an experiment. We were I think six or seven groups, each with a vacuum pump chamber and a setup that would let us charge microscopic oil droplets and measure their movement in an oscillating electromagnetic field.

Well, we labored away and started producing results on which we could apply theory and math to determine the mass of a single electron. One group eventually realized that their values were worthless, probably due to some equipment malfunction, since the calculations gave patently absurd results. One group, which got special help from the lab assistant due to early problems, got a result close to the expected, as announced by the assistant. The rest of us found that value puzzling.

The remaining groups produced remarkably consistent results clustering around a different value, about factor 2.5 off. The lab assistant couldn't figure out what we had done wrong, but he had forgotten the detailed solution sheet and had only brought a short checklist and answer to the lab. In the end, we derived the value again, together, from first principles, step by step. Same result. The lab assistant couldn't fault us, even though we were so far off from the expected value proven during three separate years of labs that he had overseen.

We learned later that he had taken the result back to the professor, along with our derivation and his solution sheet. They had finally determined that the lab solution, worked out three years ago and "proven" by all the ensuing lab sessions until ours, was wrong. Ours, the first calculated when the "solution" was not immediately available, was correct within the reasonable margins of error. This, that a factor 2.5 error for a physics constant that anyone can look up is consistently proven "true" by independent laboratory experiments was an excellent demonstration of belief patterns at work. In that way, the experiment was more valuable than the original intent, but I fear few really got it.


Whoo, hoo :-)))))))))))))) Love that story and I'll tell a few more of my own that should amuse you as time passes.

The Zen and the Art of Housebuilding book progresses toward completion. Hopefully I will complete it in not too many months.

Thought for the day:

We must not let daylight in upon the magic.

Walter Bagehot

Current Listening

Leo De Castro -- Round Midnight


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Jonathan Sturm 2002

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Jonathan Sturm 2002