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Holes in Space

Over the last few weeks, I have been daydreaming about topology. I in fact don't know a lot about the field - I've read some introductions, but I know there is a lot more content to it that I am missing. My inspiration is daydreams - the idea of distorting space so as to create unusual connections and features in reality. I don't have a mechanism for doing so, but it amuses me. I start with a few assumptions - that one may be able to link space up in unusual ways, but one could not make distortions that would cause an area of space's neighbour being nothing. (another occasional mental plaything - are the 360° of angle part of our definitional framework, or could there be space that has more or fewer neighbours? It's easy to imagine 1d space, but hard to imagine a differently shaped space with more or fewer neighbours). Today's thought on the way from work to coffeeshop - could we imagine making a pocket of space and distorting it so that there are points in it where one could not have a straight line from the outside reaching that point, e.g. where one would need to change angles to reach it once inside the pocket, assuming no sharp edges in that space? I strongly suspect the answer to be no, given some things I think would be invariant as we mentally imagine shifting the space into any configuration. However, I do not know the field well enough to know its conclusions on the matter. A good empiricist would preface this discussion, as with any math-y discussion, with a disclaimer saying something like "to the extent that we accept standard topology as a model for the physical universe, we accept the word true as a substitute for should-believe-given-our-model", if only quietly and in their head. Those philosophically careful empiricsts should probably constantly be muttering things like this to themselves (at least, I do).

For those who are curious about the application in fantasy, I sometimes daydream about having a hidden lair floating in the sky, obscured by distorting space up there inside of a cloud and poking a hole to act as a tunnel to a floating castle or similar. I then wondered if that spatial distortion in the cloud would be safe from someone or something flying straight through, or if one would need to bubble-isze and seperate that lair-space, connecting it on-demand to real space. It's kind of funny not to discard the fantasies of youth, instead trying to create them as mental exercises. Lacking people to talk to in my life, this is how I spend my time.

I ordered a Unicomp emulation of the One True Keyboard™, and it came in today. Initial impression: it is a close second to the real thing. The tactile response is very similar, but the keys are slightly wrong (OTK, like most keyboards, have keys that are gentle pyramids. The Unicomp's pyramid comes a bit higher than OTK, so their keys have slightly less surface area on top meaning they are a bit harder to hit, although they're still easier than most other keyboards). The keyboard is otherwise very good - heavy, same layout, etc. Given that my OTKs all have a PS2 interface and USB-to-PS2 converters universally suck, it's a good way to keep a mostly OTK-experience as we move forward.

Ever since I saw this advertisement on the bus, I've had a tough time not imagine reading the word "baby" in a different way. I had to make another version (big images behind cut):

Thought: Any political philosophy must be suitable for the entire world, even if that suitability is just a disclaimer that it is only meant to apply in a given society. People whose political philosophy cannot sensibly provide solutions for (and will not disclaim its ability to do so) the difficult social problems that lie outside their community or their country deserves little respect. If people refuse to break up gangs for the perspectives and lifestyle they engender, and cannot answer for the needs Eastern European countries are answering when they break up gangs of skinheads, they're missing something. They might still say it's worth the state being noninterventionist, but they must recognise that that stance has different implications over there.

Many of the ways in which my political philosophy was moved outside the norm (quite apart from socialist ethics) was consideration of the difficult social problems in other countries and examination of the actual solutions those societies have used to address them. Americans are rather extremist on rights and don't like responsibilities - American Libertarians (and to a lesser extent the American mainstream) are more easily viewed as people disconnected from the real world when viewed from the vantage of most of the rest of the world. While our legal system does not treat most of the rights and other political dogma as absolute, it is being much more moderate than mainstream society. Freedom of speech? Look at the centuries of common law on various topics that limit it, even though we recognise it as a good general case, and so on. I'm more comfortable with a perspective I'd (perhaps naïvely) call European with American leanings than what I see as mainstream here.

Horrible things nobody should do (but they would be funny):

  • Use a really nasty dollar bill to buy something as the first customer in a new restaurant. It's tradition to frame the first dollar, but using a worn and faded crumply dollar might be embarassing to display
  • Visit various forii, particularly those where conspiracy theorists hang out, posting comments with the sole content of "Comment has been removed by moderator" (taking it further on the conspiracy sites, "Comment has been removed by moderator and IP address has been sent to legal authorities")
On the way to work today, thought about how irritating it is to have buildings named after people who cough up money. Thought: what would we ideally see universities name their buildings?

I'd like to imagine two sets of names for any department's building, one for someone who actually deserves recognition, another for a concept. (Bill Gates does not deserve a CS building named after him)

My ideas, based on my own judgements of pillars of various fields:

  • Computer Science - Turing Hall, Grammar Hall
  • Physics - Bohr Hall, Uncertainty Hall
  • Maths - Gödel Hall, Irrational Hall
  • Art - Vermeer Hall, can't think of one
  • Music - Debussy Hall
  • History - Khaldun Hall
  • Public Policy - Mossadegh Hall
  • Engineering - Tesla Hall

and so on. It'd be a lot less embarassing to be a university where the names of great people are prominent over the names of rich people.

I have been reading about the foreign policy of Qatar. I suspect that Hamad al-Thani and Mozah Al-Missned together are the equivalent of Henry Kissinger-level political brilliance. I would probably take a bit closer to a principled stance than Kissinger or the Qataris, but it is nontheless impressive seeing how they maneuver.

Today (and this last weekend) were very busy with work stuff, to the point where the ordinary weekend lonliness and depression didn't hit me that hard because I was preparing demos and content for a sponsor visit. Naturally, only about 50% of the content/demos were used. My demo was upstaged (I don't mind at all) by a much nicer demo by an actual experimenter using the facilities we built. Common wisdom: the sign of a successful project/tool is that it is used in ways that impress or surprise those who made the original thing. It would've been silly to say "here is my infrastructure in a raw demo" when a researcher was showing that infrastructure glued into something more complex in a real experiment. The visit went well, I think, and it gobbling most of my weekend was probably a good thing. I have come to dislike weekends for their lonliness.

There will be more in another entry (to come shortly).


I had to reread your sentence on Qatar twice before I even figured out who you were talking about. In over five years living here, I've never seen the rulers' names written without their titles and patronymics... it's like referring to the queen of England as "Lisa Windsor." I'm curious if that was intentional?
Academic political journals tend to refer to them alternatively by these names or as "The Sheikh" or "The Sheikah" (or Emir, depending on the author), and that's primarily where I'm following the lead.

In general, so long as a title does not include honourifics, I don't mind using it. Calling the current Catholic pope "Pope Benedict" or "Pope Ratzinger" is how I'd prefer to speak of them. I'd never prefix those titles with things like "His holiness", "His Imperial Magesty", or the like, but noting someone's Job title or role in society is fine by me.

In this case, I think the academic journals tend to go by the actual names of the rulers of Qatar in order to contrast them with the policies of the previous rulers of Qatar (and also because given how many people they mention in a given article, using longer forms of the name would take a lot more space).
Huh, interesting.

I suppose things written outside Qatar are unlikely to refer to any Qataris other than the ruling couple, so it would be less problematic that their names as written there are not unique identifiers. Hamad al-Thani, for example, is the name of both the emir and the prime minister -- two separate people.

Edited at 2009-08-25 03:14 pm (UTC)
The political journals I read tend not to have much coverage of the Majlis of Qatar, their estimation being that they do not (yet) matter much on any broad scales. Do you have the same impression?

I have a tough time finding any news from the Qatari Majlis, similarly with the Majlis of Iran. The journals do have some coverage of events in the Iranian Majlis (including some rowdydisagreements), so I know at least the latter is not entirely a rubber-stamp institution.
By Majlis, do you mean the Council of Ministers or the Shura Council?

I likewise never hear anything about the Shura Council. I have no idea what they do. The Council of Ministers does have some weight, though, and there are sometimes disagreements between ministers. They're usually not publicly reported, and I suspect many disagreements have more to do with turf squabbles than real policy disagreements -- but, very definitely, not everyone with authority in this country agrees with the direction the emir and sheikha are headed in, and that does play out in policy.

Can't give any foreign policy examples, but domestic policy has gotten more conservative in the last six months. You now need membership to enter a hotel bar (which means the government knows who's going, presumably); several women have been fined for wearing inappropriate dress; etc. Two dozen Christians got deportation notices, but were never told why, and (after an enormous backlash) the decision was rescinded. I think that Qatari policies reflect loose coalitions of powerful Qataris, who may or may not be the Qataris on the Majlis or Shura Council. I privately think somehow someone more conservative has gotten more say lately, but I don't know who. I'll ask around.

One public policy disagreement among ministers regards the exit permit system; the prime minister said it's been likened to slavery, while the ministers of the interior and commerce continue to think it's reasonable.
I mean the Majlis as-Shura. Is the Council of Ministers referred to as the Majlis as well? (I know the word 「Majlis」 is broader than that, but I usually see it referring to things equivalent to a parliament rather than a cabinet.. although there's usually at least some degree of conceptual mismatch).

A few things I've been curious about - are there other prominent families (other than the al-Thani) that have significant sway in the country? How dominant are politics of tribe as compared to family and civil society? Do you ever bump into al-Jazeera people socially? Does al-Arabiya have reporters in the country?
I just didn't expect you to be talking about the Shura Council, because nobody EVER talks about the Shura Council. :-) From time to time I've heard about the Central Municipal Council and its elections, but nothing about the Shura Council.

Yes, there are other prominent families; Qatar definitely has powerful families and inconsequential families, and the politics of tribe is everything. I attended the Doha Debate Special interview with Sheikha Mozah, and one of the students asked, "Do you think there will be a time in Qatar when how far we get in life depends on who are are, and not what family we're from?" The sheikha responded that we're already in that time, when anyone from any tribe can achieve any role in society. (I desperately wanted to ask the follow-up question, "Does that mean the next emir might not be an al-Thani?")

The tribes are, as far as I can tell, the main check on the emir's power. Sheikh Hamad can't just do whatever he feels like; there are a lot of stakeholders he has to keep happy. I suspect a lot of very interesting politics happens in this country, behind closed doors.

I've never met anyone from Al Jazeera, nor al-Arabiya. My social circle tends to be mostly people in education of various types....
Wow, that's a pointed question :) Although I don't think it'd necessarily a good idea to open up political leadership to democratic processes there, as given the history, society might end up a good deal less liberal (likewise with Egypt).

One of the more interesting analyses from the most recent version of Middle East Journal suggests that the structure of the Civil Service is a major impediment to continued development of Qatar - while the royals are putting a lot of effort into making it possible for Qataris to gain useful skills and to put them into use in the private market, the structure of and privileges attached to the civil service mean that it would be the very unusual Qatari who would not go down that path. Access to land grants, cheap loans (a portion of which are traditionally "forgiven" and are thus free money), absolute job security regardless of performance, and various other incentives.. Cutting back those benefits would probably be politically difficult.

If you get a chance, it might be interesting to ask some Qataris who have decided not to enter the civil service if they feel they're missing out on much, and if they think that reforming those benefits is doable.