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19 Feb 2006

The problem with real-world problems

Filed under: Politics and philosophy — paulcook @ 8:12 pm

I was talking to some people from the students group at All Saints Church recently, and one was talking about how she’d met the winner (and new world record holder) of an international Rubik’s cube solving contest — a Caltech undergrad. The record, by the way, is now 11.13 seconds. Un. Be. Liev. Able.

She asked him why he enjoyed the cube so much. His answer was that it is a hard, but solvable, problem. Much of the research that gets done by all the really smart people at places like Caltech falls in this category, it would seem. Follow good method, and try enough things, and it is in principle possible to work out the desired solution.

“Real-world” problems, by which one presumably means problems to do with social organisation, economic organisation, inequality, government structures, etc., are often not ideally solvable. Each option has pro’s and con’s. But even more importantly, even the best laid plans have to be executed by people, each with their own agendas. So good ideas get lost in corruption, inefficiency, skills shortages or even laziness.

So my friend’s suggestion, following her Rubik’s cube encounter, was that the reason so many smart people focus on abstract problems, and don’t apply themselves to human problems in the world, is because scientists like problems which admit a “clean” solution. Which is, when one thinks about it, a pity for all concerned.

18 Feb 2006

New blog addition!

Filed under: Personal — paulcook @ 4:27 pm

The extraordinarily-observant amongst you might have noticed the addition of a new blog to my list of friend’s blogs: We dream in sound. And as an introductory post (well, to my readers at least — the blog itself has been around for, wait for it, five years!), there’s an excellent runthrough of the busy but really enjoyable last few days, full of non-work activities!

17 Feb 2006

An unexpected thing on Del Mar Blvd

Filed under: Stuff — paulcook @ 2:55 pm

I was driving along Del Mar a day or two ago, just past Lake Ave near Caltech. It was dusk, and car headlights were just coming on. As I pulled up to the light, a huge bakkie (pickup truck) with raised suspension and huge tires pulled up right behind me, with its headlights on. I don’t think the brights were on, but the height of the truck put its headlights at exactly the right height to shine directly into my eyes, via every rear-view mirror I had.

Naturally, this was annoying. For a while I leant forward, till my neck got tired. Then I sat back, but with my hand raised between me and the rear-view mirror on the windscreen, thinking idle nasty thoughts about people who feel the need to turn perfectly normal cars into monstrosities.

But after a few seconds the strangest thing happened: the truck turned off its headlights. Since it was dusk, the only possible explanation was that the driver had seen my hand, worked out the problem, and turned off his/her lights. And in that instant my idle annoyance became a lot more complicated.

By being so obvious about the thing, I had turned a minor annoyance of mine into something so significant that the other driver decided to turn off the headlights. Was I really justified in doing so? Sure, it was the design of the truck that had created the problem in the first place, but what if the driver was only borrowing it? Or had realised only after buying it the implications for everyone else on the road? Since the driver was clearly aware of the effect it had on others, was he/she driving it out of necessity only? Ironically enough, getting what I most wanted had suddenly left me unsure that it was fair to be wanting it in the first place.

And what will the other driver do now? Since I was in a normal car, she/he will now be aware of the discomfit caused every time his/her truck is behind a car. Driving without headlights is clearly not possible, so will the driver be cringing each time a light turns red with some cars in front of him/her?

Such a simple act, so many questions!

14 Feb 2006

Hitchcock Blonde

Filed under: Personal — paulcook @ 11:49 am

Ellen and I went to the US debut of “Hitchcock Blonde” on Friday. It’s an interesting play, set in a number of time periods: in the present, as a film professor and a student of his work on recovering a few frames from some recently discovered Hitchcock footage, and the professor seduces the student; and in 1919 as Hitchcock films a blonde actresses for a supposed new film featuring some (almost) nude scenes.

There were certainly a number of ideas and some crazy characters woven together. The overriding theme was how the two men (the play’s version of Hitchcock, and the professor) were both attracted to the women as images, but then found they didn’t want to be involved with them as real people. It’s also a thought experiment on where Hitchcock’s interest in persecuted blondes may have come from.

2 Feb 2006

Musical genius

Filed under: Stuff — paulcook @ 5:47 pm

In the spirit of blogwaffe’s Musical Genius post, I am starting a post to keep track of songs I think are great.

In contrast to blogwaffe’s approach, these will all be songs I actually like. Well, which I like at the time that I add them to the post — not necessarily later. It’s like impulse buying, without the buying. Though it may include buying, but that’s between me and iTunes.

To get it going:
The Bravery – Unconditional