Why the west?

Why the ‘West’ has dominated the last couple of centuries is an interesting question with many aspects. It is especially so considering how many important technologies and ideas were either first or concurrently invented elsewhere.

Take zero:

The Western civilizations, for example, failed to come up with it even after thousands of years of mathematical inquiry. Indeed the scale of the conceptual leap achieved by India is illustrated by the fact that the classical world was staring zero in the face and still saw right through it. The abacus contained the concept of zero because it relied on place value. When a Roman wanted to express one hundred and one, he would push a bead in the first column to signify one hundred, move no beads in the second column indicating no tens, and push a bead in the third column to signify a single unit. The second, untouched column was expressing nothing. In calculations, the abacist knew he had to respect untouched columns just as he had to respect ones in which the beads were moved. But he never gave the value expressed by the untouched column a numerical name or symbol.

This is a passage from Here’s Looking and Euclid, which further proposes the failure to see zero was in part due to the West being down its own particular philosophical tangent. Whereas India was a place with a rich history that embraced nothingness:

Indian philosophy embraced the concept of nothingness just as Indian math embraced the concept of zero. The conceptual leap that led to the invention of zero happened in a culture that accepted the void as the essence of the universe.

Author Alex Bellos goes on to assert that it is partly the transmission of these Indian concepts that spurred the scientific revolution.

With the adoption of Arabic numbers, arithmetic joined geometry to become part of Western mathematics in earnest, having previously been more of a tool used by shopkeepers, and the new system helped open the door to the scientific revolution.

Of course the story is much more complicated.

Not only did the use of Arabic numerals and arithmetic require a rich intellectual and practical tradition upon which to glom on to. But the right combination of openness, education, wealth (etc.), and technologies like paper to kick off the revolution.

What is really clear is how important the interplay between civilisations has been for progress. Culture, philosophy, ideas and even biology all crossed borders. Some many times over.

The real question then is, why was the West the main beneficiary?

As always my emphasis.

Tab dump

Interesting research, articles and videos in no particular order.


The bots are already upon us

I finally reached a personal milestone this week and launched my own Twitterbot. It’s quite a simple bot, using a couple of Python libraries and guidance from Hannah Shaw to construct random sentences from a copy of A Tale of Two Cities.

But as I looked around at bots, trying to figure out what I might do as a coding challenge, I was stunned by the incredible creativity and use to which they have been put. They really show how powerful even small bits of logic can be.

There are so many examples inane bots tweeting as the hours strike or every line of Shakespeare (on it’s fifth go round apparently). And, of course, cats. You’ve also got the more nefarious kinds spreading disinformation or spam.

But then you’ve got bots digging into the wonderful archives of the National Library of Australia, surfacing newspapers from decades ago. And weird performance art (is it performance art when your code does the performing?) that people interact with.

Looking at the source code, I’ve yet to find one that is more than a couple of hundred lines long, and most seem a lot shorter than that. Bots are often spoken about in catacylsmic ways, but also as an abstract idea that hasn’t really come.

But here we have bots inserting themselves into, and augmenting, many peoples’ daily life. Though simple, they provide joy, distraction, interaction and even community.

Check out this Mary Queen of Scots bot. From an old article:

Besides fellow Catholic history nerds and scholars of the period, Queen Mary has attracted a fairly staggering audience among Scottish separatists, especially given the coming Independence Referendum in September. “Thanks to the astronomical rise of the Scottish National Party, anything against England or English policies usually garners massive support,” she says. “My Scottish Nationalist followers absolutely eat anything anti-English with a spoon. It’s a strange mixture of wonderful and frightening to see history take shape in that way.”

But easily my favourite bot is Every3Minutes. It tweets every three minutes to remind us that a person was sold every three minutes in the American South between 1820 and 1860.

Both a profound and devastating thing to be reminded of in a way that only machines can – regularly and persistently.


How to earn trust

One of my favourite YouTube channels is called Kurzgesagt. They recently released a video explaining why you should trust their short, animated videos on topics as diverse as string theory, ageing and homeopathy.

The interesting part is not the deep dive into their research, writing and fact checking process; but that they spend almost half the video utterly ripping themselves to shreds.

They call out two videos specifically – one on refugees and another on addiction. They explain why they are problematic and that they have been removed.

I trust them so much more because of this self-flagellation. Because they are willing to admit their mistakes and bias. To explain why these were failures and how they were made. To flesh out the context, what has changed and why.

Going through this so comprehensively makes me believe they’ve learnt from their mistakes. And doing so in a prominent space (rather than, for instance, newspaper corrections being buried on page 15) shows they take it seriously.

Being right is a process, is hard, is often undignified, and it doesn’t get easier. Just look at how many public institutions we’ve built around these principles.

Unfortunately the same can’t be said for most of our media. They tend to prefer a model of trust built on prominence and obscurity rather than transparency. They seek to wish away bias rather than own and deal with it.

That doesn’t work anymore.

Some other great videos from the channel:


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