November 2012 Archives

Mon Nov 26 08:54:44 EST 2012

Starship Troopers

Ever since I came back from the most recent Port Davey Voyage, I've been looking for a way to get more quality quiet time, and the fact that we have three new crew on board means the ship is noisier during the day. Recently, I've found myself rising earlier in order to have some time for reading, coding, thinking or writing. It's given me enough time to read my next book, Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers.

Science fiction books have easy access to a nifty little rhetorical device, and it's one that Heinlein uses all through the book. It looks like this:

  1. Set story in the future.
  2. Refer to present-day ideas or thoughts.
  3. Use the gap between our present (the story's past) and the story's present (our future) to show how present-day thinking causes X, for some negative X.
  4. By implication, present-day thinking in our world will also cause X.

You don't even need to explicitly state the negative effects: characters can just refer to ideas as having some sufficiently disastrous effect that nothing more needs to be said. The converse also works: go a little bit into the future, introduce some favoured idea and have it result in some positive effect Y.

Heinlein uses this device lay out his views on all sorts of things: the lack of corporal punishment, training officers directly from civilians, the purpose of war, the structure of military training and the rights and responsibilities of the citizen. These mostly come from dialogues in History and Moral Philosophy class, a non-graded class taught entirely through argument.

In Heinlein's world, no human is born a full citizen. Non-citizens pay taxes, work, have reasonable freedoms but cannot vote and cannot hold office. In order to become a full citizen, a human needs to spend some time in Federal Service. Although there are several ways to do this, the one the book focuses on, and the one that is considered the "real" way is military service. The thinking is that an aspiring citizen cannot be trusted with the vote unless he has shown that he is able to put the needs of the group above his own. Unfortunately for Heinlein, the real world doesn't work this way. Countries with optional voting have issues with voter turnout, which unbalances the results. I don't see how making the vote harder to obtain would improve the political process. What might work is the other side of Heinlein's system: restricting public office to those that have earned it.

The problem we have is there are too many people, people who are meant to be working for the public, making decisions behind closed doors without really giving the public interest much thought. They get away with ignoring the public interest because the public is not interested. Perhaps it's because political involvement isn't valued because it isn't earned, as Heinlein says. Perhaps we've become too easily distracted as our world approximates Huxley's brave new one. Whatever the cause, people whose only connection to the political process is a vote every few years (myself included) are getting exactly what we deserve.

Posted by Jack Kelly | Permanent link | File under: readings

Sun Nov 25 09:10:46 EST 2012

Living Education

In a sail training voyage, trainees come to us with no experience of the sea and leave eight-to-ten days later as moderately competent hands: they can work aloft, handle rope, know basic knots, work on the deck and set and strike sail. Depending on how quickly the trainees can be motivated in the first days, there's often time to go further: skills like chart work, navigation and watchkeeping are taught by the mates, who watch over the trainees as they work. Motivated crews, like those from Deakin University, can go much further than a school-age group, who necessarily must spend more time learning to cope with new hardships like seasickness, homesickness and close-quarters living.

Even so, the amount of progress the school-age groups make is impressive, and I think it is because they are living their education. During the day, they are surrounded by work; when their work is done, they sleep; when they wake up, their work is there for them. It is this total immersion into their work (and the isolation from everything else), I think, that encourages rapid learning: there is almost nothing else to do but learn the ways of the ship.

Now apply this model to the permanent crew. We live on board, and even on a day off we can be pulled into some multi-person job if extra hands are needed. From the moment we sign on, we're expected to learn: both ship-specific procedures and general seamanship. She's a training vessel, not just for the voyage crew but for the permanent crew as well, who clock up quality sea-time at an incredible rate during the voyage season. Some of the traditional techniques won't apply, of course (who parcels and serves their standing rig these days?), but the navigation equipment is modern and every vessel will have some degree of ropework. Social skills, such as sharing small quarters, working in a watch system and getting along with everyone while run ragged, are also applicable anywhere.

It's not all good news, though. During the voyage season, friends and family may as well be on Mars and the ship's schedule makes committing to regular activities ashore extremely difficult. Even during the day-sail season, having a different "weekend" from everyone else makes organising anything extremely difficult.

Despite the social difficulties, there are a lot of benefits to this model of education, and I wonder where else it could be applied. University students living on-campus have a very similar educational structure: they live where they work, they take their work home and a lot of social contact is based around their work. But a university education is slow, with a bachelor's degree taking at least three years. Can a university be turned into an environment where students live their education? Unfortunately, I don't think so.

The biggest reason I believe living education works on board is because shipboard life is so relentlessly practical: everything is done by hand, and you can instantly see what is happening and who is causing it. Even when off watch, someone else is working and you can learn by observation. In a university, students are building mental structures instead of physical ones, and this makes it much harder to appreciate someone else's work.

A ship on voyage runs to a strict schedule, and that means the crew can handle a strict schedule in port. At university, very few lectures are compulsory, tutorial participation is given a token mark to encourage attendance (at least in computer science, where I am from), and financial pressure forces many students to skip lectures in order to work (and later watch a recording or catch up via reading). This has created a chicken-and-egg situation: if the lectures or tutorials were made unskippable (in a positive sense, such as if they became lively, interactive demonstrations), then students who rely on their part-time (or even full-time) jobs to fund their studies risk being shut out of university altogether.

On board, we can carry up to thirty-four people at most. That includes the crew, officers, school teachers and cook, which means that there's usually one watch leader teaching six-to-eight trainees. The number of students enrolled at university forces the bulk of the information to be transmitted via lecture, a notoriously ineffective method of teaching. Replacing lectures with something more effective but still cost-efficient is a difficult problem.

What can be done? It seems to me that two things need to happen at once: first, financial pressure on students needs to ease (for costs like accommodation and meals, since tuition is covered by HECS-HELP). At the same time, courses need to move beyond lectures to capture this additional free time, before it goes to waste. How can this happen? I have no idea.

Posted by Jack Kelly | Permanent link | File under: windeward_bound, miscellaneous

Sat Nov 24 07:27:45 EST 2012

Final Voyage of 2012

Well, that's it. I've finished my final voyage for the year. It was a good chance to train up our new crew and for me to get some more things ticked off in my work book. This one took us to Bruny Island, then Maria Island and back to Bruny on the final day. On the final day, we had the local wildlife come up to greet us:

Barnes Bay Swans

And during that final day, we had some interesting cloud patterns develop:

Wall of Cloud

But in general, I didn't use the camera. I've been up and down the coast enough that I'm more concerned with keeping up on sleep and getting my work book finished than taking happy snaps. We did see whales coming back from Maria Island, but they were too far away to photograph, and we had dolphins when I was asleep below. Amusingly, we had an alert on our INMARSAT warning about an "area temporarily dangerous to navigation due to rocket carrier elements falling daily". It was well clear of us, so we weren't bothered.

Instead, I'll share a gem from a voyage late last year. We had a waypoint to hit at a certain time, and even at idle revs we were going too fast. So to waste a bit of time, the first mate signed his initials in the chart plotter:

Signing the Chart Plotter

When he came in for breakfast, all he said was that we were going too fast and that he'd put the crew through some maneuvering drills.

Posted by Jack Kelly | Permanent link | File under: windeward_bound

Sat Nov 17 19:02:20 EST 2012

The Philosophical Life

On this most recent voyage, I have found time to continue reading. This time, it is James Miller's The Philosophical Life. (It appears to be called "Examined Lives" in America). It's a collection of 12 mini-biographies of philosophers throughout history: Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson and Nietzsche. The book was not exactly what I was expecting: the back cover makes the book sound like it examines how each thinker approached life, but details of their respective systems are only presented as part of each biography. It's good to see how their systems developed, but it was a little disappointing. Clearly, I need to find a proper philosophy text.

Even so, the philosophers' stories are fascinating, and I'm pretty sure that Diogenes is one of the earliest recorded examples of a troll. Montaigne's idea that humans are fundamentally good (but human institutions damage their morals) is inspiring, and I'm sure someone's studied it in the context of business. Disappointingly, many of the thinkers show gaps between the morals they espoused and the way they lived their lives. What would've happened to philosophy (in the old sense of finding the best way to live), if it didn't have the idealised image of Socrates that his admirers left behind?

What this book has made clear is just how poorly I understand myself. I mentioned this in a previous post, but it is much more clear now. On the scale of revelations, it has nothing on Montaigne's, and I probably won't write a book about it. Once I finish up on Windeward Bound, I think I need a proper break, with time to sit and think on these things. From past experience it is all too easy to live by reacting to events rather than living to a system or living with intent. In several of the biographies, groups of thinkers would gather to discuss how best to live life, and it sounds like a useful exercise. Why doesn't it seem to happen any more? Maybe when I'm back ashore, I should get a group of friends together over an infinite plate of spaghetti and have a philosophical dinner.

Posted by Jack Kelly | Permanent link | File under: readings

Thu Nov 15 22:35:02 EST 2012

Port Davey, November 2012

I've just come back from my final trip to Port Davey. On this trip, we were lighter on crew than usual, which meant the run into Port Davey and the run back around the South Coast were done in two watches: four hours on, four hours off. That was how it was done in the old days, but modern regulations mean it's no longer allowed for extended periods of time.

Once we were at anchor inside Port Davey, we were able to split up the watches and everyone was able to get a sensible amount of sleep. In fact, they were some of the most restful and productive nights I've had in a long time. The night watch was two hours of peace and quiet, far away from anyone else with no online distractions. It was easy to sit and read, write or code and just get up to do the scheduled checks. Not only that, but the scenery is much better out there than in the middle of town:

Sunrise, Celery Top Islands

After reading Rachel Aaron's article on going from 2K to 10K words per day, it seems that during these early morning sessions, I've hit all three of her methods, quite by accident. After a couple of evenings of coding, I started doing the next night's planning in-head during the daytime shifts, which meant I knew exactly what I was doing when I came back to emacs. The time I had was much more usable: there was nobody else awake to interrupt me, no TV going and no internet to distract myself. Finally, I was excited about the code I was adding. Now that I'm back in port, I'm not sure how I can get such good working time again. There's too much going on to make daytime sleep an option.

Of course, we don't just sit at anchor for the entire trip. The passengers had their bush-walks, sea kayaking, boat trips up the Davey River and that sort of thing. Every time we moved the ship, the second mate put me in a power boat and had me conduct maneuvering drills. It was pretty frustrating work at first, but I had my camera to take shots of the whole ship:

Windeward Bound, Moving Between Anchorages

Eventually it was time to go, and we set sail for Hobart, and I mean that literally. We had a favourable (if light) wind and managed to get up almost all of the canvas:

Set Sail

The wind eventually died and we were in no particular rush, so we spent a couple of hours idling in the channel. With the ship not making way, the helmsman doesn't have a lot to do:

Tired at the Helm

Since nobody was used to it, the four-on, four-off schedule was actually quite challenging for the crew. It's funny to think that a few years ago, there was a meme going around the internet (an actual meme, not an image with some text on it) that claimed that short naps, when taken frequently, would provide an effective rest and allow people to have more time awake. The concept was called polyphasic sleep, and seems to have been popularised mostly by this Kuro5hin page, this Everything2 node and Steve Pavlina. Hardly anyone else claimed success on these schemes, and tonight's googling shows mostly pages from the early-mid 2000s.

It should've been obvious, but if shift workers can barely function with four hours of sleep for every four hours awake, how could anyone think that twenty minutes every four hours would work? I suppose everyone was too excited about the prospect of so much free time to stop and think "will this actually work?". I know I was.

Posted by Jack Kelly | Permanent link | File under: windeward_bound

Sat Nov 3 20:12:29 EST 2012

The Man Who Loved Only Numbers

Now that I'm voyaging again, I have many more opportunities to read. Especially on this Port Davey trip, as the passengers are nowhere near as much work as the school students. I've previously mentioned my weakness for pop-mathematics books, but I don't feel guilty reading a biography. The Man Who Loved Only Numbers is a biography of Paul Erdős, one of the most prolific and strangest mathematicians who ever lived.

Paul had a lot of trouble operating in the real world, and the book is at its best when retelling these stories. He had little need for money, travelled the world with a couple of suitcases, doing mathematics all the way, loved grapefruits but couldn't open them, had his own language (children were called "epsilons", a mathematician who retired was "dead" but a mathematician who died had "left") and didn't see the problem with ringing people at 5:00am, because that's when they'd be home. He one turned up at a colleague's door one Christmas Eve, and the first words out of his mouth were "Merry Christmas. Let f(n) be the following function...".

But even though his life was disconnected from the real world, he had plenty of time for the people who lived in it. He had a peculiar knack for matching mathematical problems to people, and mentored a great many mathematicians during his travels. Needing only a little money, he gave most of it to charities, beggars and the homeless. He loved all children, regardless of their mathematical talent, and cared for anyone he thought was vulnerable. He was also an extremely principled man: in 1954 he was invited to a conference in Amsterdam, but the US denied him a re-entry permit. He resigned his university position and left the country.

So here is an apparent contradiction: Erdős clearly lived apart from the real world, but cared deeply about his fellow mathematicians. I find his life hugely inspiring: he was able to wander the world, working on mathematics and mathematicians, getting along in his own peculiar way. The best part about his story is that his family and friends made this life possible. It would have been far too easy to write someone like him off as crazy.

The book loses a little steam towards the end: the section on Diophantine equations and Fermat's last theorem feels like it's included just because.

Posted by Jack Kelly | Permanent link | File under: readings