Looking at the top 100, it's remarkable how interconnected (and, hence, high-ranking) the Russian LJ community is and how interconnected the Harry Potter fandom is, both of which punch well above their weight in the top hundred here. (I also think this gives us as objective an indication as possible as to who the BNFs really are, at least in the LJ segment of the HP fandom.) The associated research paper (PDF) even points out how remarkably interconnected online RPG communities can be, particularly HP ones.
2) I have a ticket to go and see Gyles Brandreth on his "Confessions of a Failed Politician" tour, coming to town on Sunday night! Fingers crossed there'll be some shaggy dog tales about the great and the good. Anyone got any awkward questions for him, just in case audience questions are sought?
3) There is not enough fanboyish analysis of the World Puzzle Championships, I have decided. The best way to encourage more is to establish a World Puzzle Championships communal weblog to which all with an interest can post. I've written some articles for it already and have more to post to see if we can get discussion going, but if it turns out only to be me who's interested, then we shan't bother. More to come there in future days, but feel free to dive in. Incidentally, Byron Calver reckons he's better than you at Sudoku - see his comment on puzzle #19. I wouldn't like to argue against him. Carol Vorderman, are you listening? (No - Vordermonitor Ed)
4) Michael Adams, British chess #1, is playing a chess computer and doing very badly, having started loss-draw-loss and having a tricky RPPP v. RPP endgame to defend in game four. He's being paid by results ($25k per win, $10k per draw) so this represents bad news for him. Come on, Mickey! More locally, someone called Cheung Tai Law won $311,000 with a second place finish in the World Series of Poker the other week; apparently he lives here in Middlesbrough and owns a Chinese restaurant. There is a C. T. Law in the phone book and he lives in a nice area of town, so it might be him. Wow.
5) Was greatly amused to find the "Internet TV" option in Winamp 5. There seem to be lots of stations streaming South Park episodes, which can't be legal, but also Demoscene TV, streaming demos (of better graphics than you would have thought possible from a home computer of the day) and intros from the '90s and onwards to your Winamp: lots of 3-D effects, graphical joy and text scrolling in thousands of ways. Mostly Amiga, with large representation for Atari ST and Windows, and a brave shout-out on the "old skool" channel for one low-res but gutsy Z80 MSX demo. Respect! I also enjoy the mostly rave-style music prevalent among the demo scene; ooh, it's the '90s coming back. There must be some way to put Winamp video on full screen mode but move other windows in front of this effectively animated wallpaper, mustn't there?
6) When a new would-be employer checks one's references, is it at all known, or at all usual, for the would-be new employer to contact not just your old boss to see how good you were at the job but also your old co-workers to see how easy you were to get along with as a co-worker? If not, why not; is it expected that the boss will be able to assess this aspect of a worker's suitability and report it neutrally? (I'm not looking, this is just in the most general terms.)
7) I'm not saying which naughty My Little Pony I am, but I will say that it's a shame that nobody seems to get Subversion as it's clearly the cutest. Incidentally, I didn't realise that GreatestJournal had in-built Quizilla-quiz-like functionality - it keeps people on the site, I suppose. Next time someone moans about wanting 1,000 icons here like one has at GJ I shall po-facedly suggest they decamp there.
8) Like most of the rest of you, I'm a science genius girl. Well, bloke.
9) By far the most interesting film I've seen over the past year has been What the #$*! do we know!?, with the bowdlerised expletive usually pronounced "bleep", hence the web site at http://www.whatthebleep.co.uk/ . I saw it first in Boston and again in London last week. On balance I don't think it's convincing and I cannot call it completely good, However, I found it interesting and think it has provoked fundamental thoughts in me to a greater extent than any other movie that springs to mind. Accordingly, I recommend it to the open-minded.
The film is a rather breathless overview of a small number of viewpoints about a small number of topics: the state of human knowledge, people's willingness to accept paradigm shifts, perception, reality, quantum mechanics, the many-worlds interpretation, brain chemistry, activity, spirituality, atheism and finally - the big one - intention. Much of the film revolves around one character, Amanda, and her journey of (self-)discovery, though there are extensive attractive graphical sequences and many excerpts from scientists and prominent thinkers. At the end of the movie, the scientists and thinkers reveal their credentials, after having let their words speak for them throughout.
I do like the viewpoint that open-mindedness is inherently good and it's always fun to think that we - here, we being the film's audience - might be prepared to know and believe something that the rest of the world at large may not know or be prepared to believe. The film also plays very fair in suggesting that it only offers a hypothesis and it's up to the viewer to make up their own mind, which is all well and good. We are introduced to the theory that the world is made up of thought and perception rather than substance and claims are made that quantum mechanics is a scientific hypothesis that is useful in understanding the nature of the universe. From there, there's some hand-waving and vague claims are made about the role of quantum mechanics and the inextricable nature of its measurement by way of determining its nature.
I'd need to see the film at least a third and a fourth time to fully get my head around the ways that the topics mentioned are claimed to link to each other, but we proceed to a section with a theory that brain chemicals called peptides can cause physical reactions in your body to emotions in your mind, thus providing an apparently rational explanation of the connection between emotions and physical events in the world. There is a fair discussion of addiction here as it is a particularly clear demonstration of changes in brain chemistry at work. A theory is proposed that love is merely a manifestation of addiction to another person and the way they make you feel through their behaviour. I can live with that - it's satisfying intellectually and consistent with my experiences.
Intertwined with the discussion comparing the perception of reality against the nature of reality itself, some of the scientists overtly propose an atheist theory that we are as capable of perceiving and observing acts in the world as any deity could be or would be, so if a deity exists, traditional religious interpretations and religious practices are completely arbitrary. From there, we advance to a theory that our emotions and intentions alone can affect physcial properties of the world and its contents. The logical conclusion of this is that we can affect the universe and forces beyond our control through our thoughts and intentions, which is a claim so plausible and simultaneously right, wrong and meaningless as to be up there with astrology.
Hmm. I'm not explaining this well; you rather have to go and see the film to get what I'm on about. This is a statement I'm not happy making as I recognise it as the first step on the path towards cult-like behaviour. It's also true that a good film would be able to communicate its ideas clearly so that a viewer might pass them on. It's a very enjoyable film to watch; it's gorgeous-looking, the actors are excellent (Amanda's artist housemate offers tremendous eye candy and the child actor mugs away perfectly) and I guess it's just very easy to enjoy being blinded by pseudo-science without testing the claims they make at all rigorously. I know I'm not explaining these claims very clearly, but even after two viewings, the film does not explain its claims nearly well enough for me to understand them so I am able to explain to you - and I think this is at least partly the film's fault for its lack of clarity, as well as my fault for inattention. Watch it, enjoy it, don't necessarily buy into it.
It's also true that the film does not offer a great deal of hard evidence for its claims; there's mention of a transcendental meditation study and mention of a study into water crystals, though I'm at least as convinced by reports I've seen discrediting the evidence as being artistic rather than scientific in its approach. It would be lovely for the film's hypotheses to be true because the film suggests all sorts of wonderful things that follow reasonably logically if and only if we can accept some interesting new axioms as fundamentally true, but I cannot consider these axioms proved to my own satisfaction yet. Though, for that matter, nor can I consider them disproved.
It's interesting to note the credentials of the experts they have speaking on the film and I think many of them are legitimately respected and highly credible. The film plays fair by admitting at the very end that not all the scientists believe, or agree with, all the other scientists quoted in the movie; the Wikipedia article specifically mentions that one scientist feels that he was misrepresented by the film and is very unhappy with the way that footage of him was used.
Most interestingly of all, the Wikipedia article reveals the nature of one of the experts quoted in the film, Judy Z. Knight, who claims to be channeling a 35,000-year-old spirit called Ramtha. She's probably one of the three experts most frequently quoted in the film and - in my view - clearly the most actor-like and least immediately credible of them. It's highly relevant that the three film-makers are all students at her school who are known to profess at least some of the same beliefs as her. Some say at this point that this robs the film of all its credibility and reduces it to a mere recruiting tool for one particular purveyor of spirituality - and, indeed, a paprticular purveyor of spirituality who has no problems making considerable financial and commitment demands of their followers. I can see their point; no wonder they call the film a cult hit.
Nevertheless, I don't think the film is without merit as a tool to get you to (re)consider your own beliefs on the matters raised and to explore the topics further. I'm doing the former, though I haven't yet done much of the latter. It would certainly be interesting to get together with like-minded folk to do so, even if (especially if) we know and assume we aren't necessarily going to reach the same conclusions as the film. It's the journey that's interesting at least as much as the destination.
Anyway, the film's big finale comes in a sequence whereby one particular scientist (though one associated with the Ramtha organisation, neutrality fans) reveals his techniques for visualising the day ahead and willing it to turn out in ways that are advantageous. If you accept that this can have an effect, then the more you do this, the more effective it will be and the more events outside your control you can accept as potentially having come as a result of your having willed them.
To me, this is much easier a thought to consider and a much more credible axiom to accept than many of the other claims that the film suggests you consider. It doesn't strike me as being terribly different from offering prayers to the deity of your choice, except that here you're praying to the universe, to the ultimate observer, to whatever forces exist that are outside your control. I am prepared to believe that this can be a beneficial thing to do if you believe it's a beneficial thing to do and I think there's a rational explanation for it, regardless of any theist, atheist or Ramtha-related beliefs. I'm not saying it's right, because it's only a theory, but it's one that I think is at least partly convincing.
From this point onwards, forget the film. Don't let any negative opinions you have about the film and its makers cloud your judgment here.
The most interesting book I read last year was The Luck Factor, whose premise I described some time back. In short, the same events out of people's control happen to everybody. Some people regard themselves as lucky and consider events outside their control to represent good fortune on their part. Some people regard themselves as unlucky and consider events outside their control to represent ill fortune on their part. Most people are between the two extremes, but there are some who can put positive interpretations on events most would regard as catastrophic, and there are others who see only ill when others would look on the bright side. Lucky people maximise chance opportunities by being open-minded, relaxed and networking widely, listen to lucky hunches by trusting their judgment, expect good fortune and turn bad luck to good. Essentially, lucky people are self-confident and optimistic. Be optimistic and you will regard yourself as lucky, which is as good a definition of being lucky as any. The book then gives a rationale for optimism and some techniques to practice in your own thinking.
I regarded myself as having been a Christian between the ages of about 13 and about 17 or so. After that point, for some time, I regarded myself as having been, but no longer being, Christian. For at least some of that time, I regarded myself as having been both luckier and happier when I was Christian - but glad no longer to be Christian because I'd rather not be wrong than be happy and lucky. Today, I regard myself as not being Christian and I don't want to be. I'm not sure I believe in God, but I do pray - and I'm pretty good about remembering to pray as part of my immediate-after-lights-out routine. If I don't believe in God, why pray? In part, it's a Pascal's Wager thing - if prayer has an effect, I'm better off, and if prayer has no effect, I'm no worse off. (The classic counter-argument runs that if I'm praying to the wrong thing and my prayer has a negative effect, I'm screwed. But hey!)
Prayer, meditation, secular meditation and creating your day all look very similar to me. It may well be that they have no effect on the rest of the world; you may not be able to will the water crystals to freeze prettily by expressing and truly believing love for them. Nevertheless, if you believe your routine works - or, at least, that it works for you - then you will gain self-confidence from it; this self-confidence will be reflected in everything you do, if only subconsciously, and this subconscious self-confidence is a signal that others will subconciously react to and treat you and your behaviour more favourably as a result. In this way prayer, meditation and similar outpourings are all equally beneficial, because they're all beneficial in the eyes of the people who perform them.
There are a tremendous number of coincidences in the world, some benign, some malign. Sometimes coincidences have apparently come as a result of my prayer; other times, I've had good ideas immediately after (or during) offering prayer. For instance, there was one time when the_maenad was picking me up in her car from Oxford for some reason - to take me to an interview at a charity, I think, and then on to a games con. I knew vaguely where her car was, but had no clue how far up Norham Gardens it was. Time was tight and I prayed to know where it was while I ran along; maybe a second or two after I finished praying, she opened the car door as a signal. More recently, being in the same Internet café at the same time as wmk06 when we could both have been anywhere in London was a heck of a coincidence. (That on the same day I'd seen the movie, too!)
These are all coincidences and can be explained away as such. If you believe that faith cannot be put to the test to bring about (selfishly?) desirable outcomes, there's no difference between being lucky and observing yourself to be lucky - there's no difference between reality and what you perceive reality to be. From there, by extension, I conclude that I cannot perceive God to exist, so either God does not exist or I live in a situation where I cannot tell the difference between God not existing and the combined effects of God existing but me being unable to perceive God's existence - and I can't tell what the difference between the two is in practice. Nevertheless, I choose to pray, and believe that the prayers that I offer help me.
I do pray for you (many specific singulars out of the plurality of you), your friends and your families from time to time too, particularly when you request it. If you say "give me good thoughts at such and such a time", I will try to do so, particularly where job interviews and medicinal procedures are involved. If these thoughts cannot have an effect, why do them? It's so that you can believe me - or, perhaps more to the point, I can believe me - when I tell you I'm praying for you, or thinking good thoughts for you. I choose to believe that you all live up to your promises in this regard, too. When there are lots of people who say they're praying for me, or sending good wishes, or whatever, I know that (at least) there are lots of people with my best interests at heart and who want me to succeed. That gives me self-confidence, too, possibly the sort of subconscious self-confidence that will be subconsciously picked up by others and help me to succeed in whatever I try.
Additionally, I do pray for some of you, and do separately will you specific good thoughts, when you haven't asked me for it, and I choose to believe that some of you do likewise towards me. If any of you were ever explicitly to ask me not to do so, then I would try to remember to do so, and I wouldn't pray or will while I remembered. It would probably be a pretty memorable sort of request, too!
Working from an atheist standpoint does pose some big questions, though, like how we know we're all here and how we should all behave, which is the practical implementation of asking what the meaning of "good" is. Atheism means cheerfully accepting you'll never know whether or not we are all snot from the nose of the Great Green Arkle Seizure and indeed it means that I don't know how to be good. I have, though, gleaned over the years a vague humanist sense of how to be nice - and I deliberately pick that adjective because of its vagueness and meaninglessness.
To me, a large part of being nice is being easy to get along with. It's about being resonable, it's about moderating yourself, it's about seeing other people's points of view. It's about putting up with people when they aren't being nice to you and not retaliating in kind by not being nice to them. Come to think of it, it's pretty indistinguishable from being kind, according to your perception of kindness, except that declaring yourself to be kind sounds a little too self-satisfied and smug for my liking. There's also a part about treating others how you know they like to be treated in there; if you don't know how they like to be treated, get better at finding out how they would like to be treated and in the interim treat them how you would like to be treated yourself. (Hat tip to catalana for helping me figure this out.)
I don't claim always to be nice; there are lots of times when I am far from kind - for instance, by expressing unkind opinions about people behind their back. (I plead guilty of doing this, and feel guilt for having done so - guilt for the expression, not the admission.) There are also plenty of ways in which I could be far kinder; I'm lousy at replying to e-mail, I have a terrible record with thank-you notes and almost never send out birthday cards. There are also occasions when I'm not nice to people simply because not being nice is so blatantly obviously funny (see Fandom Squares at Nimbus 2003) even though I know that's one of the worst justifications in the world for doing anything and one that I sometimes get unduly annoyed at other people for using.
Additionally, I think there are some good arguments for not being nice under some circumstances. There are a few of you on my Friends list who I regard as being far from nice on sufficiently many occasions that I regard you as not being nice - but, you know what? That's OK. Some of you have shown me that being reasonable and being principled are the opposite of each other in practice and I find it considerably easier to accept unreasonable behaviour if I can accept that you think you're acting in a principled fashion. Mind you, if George Bernard Shaw really did say "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." and meant it then I think less of him as a result. There was an airline executive who espoused an opinion that - I paraphrase here - the reasonable man never got anywhere in negotiations; that viewpoint alone is as good a reason as any not to use that executive's airline if there's a choice. I think guessing wrongly which that airline might be could be libellous, so I shan't.
Possibly more than any other factor, a large part of being nice is all about forgiveness and being prepared to give people the benefit of the doubt. I would even go so far as to extend that to say that the secret of any relationship (friendship, romance, maybe even a business contract) is to give the other person the benefit of the doubt - and not being able to do so is a good sign that the relationship is not meant to be.
10) Er... er... LiveJournal tags! Aren't they fantastic and won't they get even more fantastic still soon?