Tuesday, October 30, 2007

In the Beginning Was the End (Parte Sexta): NZ»OZ

So, here I've been preaching the gospel of The-End-Before-The-Beginning, but sometimes...

Well, 'sometimes'.

We–that being my wife and I–have pondered the scenario of leaving Dunedin and going back to live in Australia for some time. The ideal situation would have been to get a job there while still here, then selling the house and packing up our stuff and sodding off to warmer climes. A safe kind of adventure, making one's own fate contingent upon the timing of processes vastly beyond our control and weighed heavily against us.

Phone job-interviews are not a very productive process; and I must admit that I have some sympathy for a decision-making on hiring someone for a job where face-to-face interviewed candidates get a better deal and where candidate-distance becomes an automatic factor for relegation to a less significant place in a potential employer's consideration. The thing gets worse for contract jobs that often require a fairly quick start.

So, bottom line, we said "enough" and "let us end this" and... well, yes..."in the beginning is the end" and "what do we really have to lose" and "what if instead of Y years old we were X years old" (with 'X' less than 'Y' by something like a factor of two) and we decided to end it in order to allow a new beginning. We're about to hand in our respective and required notices at our work-places, put the house on the market and become serious about getting those things done that need to get done if you're doing what we're going to do. Everything from new passports to transferring bank accounts to saying good-byes to everybody and sundry.

Big thing this. Kinda scary. But it's been some while in coming and our recent visit to the N.T. sort of provided the shakabuku. (By the way, I don't think that's a real word, and it may indeed have only come into existence in the movie Grosse Pointe Blank; which, by the way, was my favorite flick of 1997.) And here we are. The end is nigh. Departure date from NZ, if all goes well: Dec 2, 2007. The end of an era spanning more years than I'll admit to on a public forum.

Today was 'Resignation Day', far too long in coming, but entirely through my own doing. My elder daughter called from the UK to wish me a 'Happy Resignation Day'. The younger one sent me a text with basically the same content. My wife did the same thing in her workplace a day ago.

Things have become definite, and it's amazing how choices makes life easier. Never mind the consequences, which, given due circumspection or sheer dumb luck, hopefully will not be as dire as they would be had different decisions been made. But I'm all for choices as my trusty readers hopefully know.

So, this is the End, which has to come before the Beginning.

Done.

Monday, October 29, 2007

WATCH THIS SPACE...

...for a major announcement, coming up tomorrow!

Ahh, the suspense...

Hoplophobia


το όπλο - to Hoplo (n) : first meaning was: "tool", "instrument"; later meaning was the tool of war = weapon

το όπλον - to Hoplon : (later generic use) tool of war, including all kind of weapons

Hoplophobia: the irrational and uncontrollable fear of instruments; based on "the idea that instruments possess a will of their own, apart from that of their user". As the inventor of the neologism put it: "The essence of the affliction is the belief that instruments cause acts."

The guy had an acerbic wit and was a source of many quotables. One of my favorites is "One of the notable aspects of the democratic process is that one need not know anything about a subject in order to pass laws about it." Does that sound familiar or does it?

Anyway, about hoplophobia. It had been invented to refer to a fear of weapons, and guns in particular; but it applies in equal measure to, say, the notion that James Dean's car was cursed or that computers have minds-of-their-own.

Hoplophobia is based on the notion of—and I'm making this one up here and now—Hoplanimus, the silly idea that an animus may possess/inhabit inanimate objects. The notion that this may be so has been revitalized—not just 'revived' because it's been around like forever, and merely sprung another sprout—in a pseudo-rational form in recent times through the advent of computers, which once were known as 'thinking machines'; and this has now assumed grotesque proportions in the notion that 'the Internet' may possess an animus of sorts. The whole notion is an unholy marriage of crass superstition belonging into truly 'dark' ages and equally crass and primitive...well, let me call it 'materialism', the kind which postulates that every sufficiently complex physical system may become possessed of an animus of sorts, and should therefore be treated as if it did; if not in terms of 'rights', than at least in terms of being very leery of what it might end up doing or being. Hence Matrix and Terminator and so on.

While it may well be that...
  • machines may well end up complex enough and in contexts that will endow them with animus-like qualities (though said animus will be so utterly strange to us that we'll have a hard time recognizing it, since we implicitly understand 'animation' in terms of what we are!)

  • humans, being biological machines, can lay no claim to a special status in the animus department (which would require a complete revamping of the animus concept itself)
...said animus is based on something very different than the mystery-substance inhabiting an object like a gun or a sword, to name just two of the 'weaponry' kind.

Failure to differentiate between the two is expressive, if nothing else, of a) a dismal lack of education in the science department in not just the ordinary man on the street but also those who really should know better, b) the pervasive desire of humans to see 'mystery' even in the most un-mysterious places, and c) the complete lack of correlation between 'education' and 'good sense'. For it appears to me that, counterintuitively, apparent 'education' and hoplophobia often go hand in hand.

But explaining the origins of hoplophobia doesn't make it go away. It is real enough. I've watched it in action first hand in a guy I know; this gut reaction to the presence of instruments whose only purpose, let's face it, is to kill. And killing isn't nice on the whole, though we tend to be selective about our ethics in that regard. Of course, some zealous Buddhists will try not to kill anything—but they are waging a battle they can not only never win, but are actually losing at every instant of their lives, since their very existence is contingent on the endless killing going on inside their bodies: vegetable and animal; either ingested, and if not that, at the very least bits of themselves.

Animism with regards to killing-instruments is probably invoked by a variety of impulses, whose exact nature depends on the hoplophobic individual. But the main one is probably the recognition--explicit or subtle and never-realized--that with the instrument comes the power of delivering death to other living creatures and in particular human beings. This is both, cause for weapons-fetishism ('hoplophilia'?) and hoplophopbia alike; plus a gazillion other strange and often bizarre behaviorisms, especially among those who are in positions of power of fellow human beings anyway, who are more often than not a pretty twisted bunch of f...rs.

Hoplophophics and hoplophiliacs--just the other side of that coin, really--share a defect in character, which merely expresses itself in opposite ways, depending on what their otherwise disposition is. The ones fear what the weapon stirs up in them; the others revel in it. In either case it reveals a weakness, usually profound. In some instances, or maybe more than just 'some', it reveals potentially pathological tendencies. Either that or just a disposition toward fervor, like that evidenced by, say, gun-nuts and anti-gun-morons alike.

Weapons are what you make them, literally and figuratively. And a person's attitude toward being shown, as well as his behavior and actions upon being handed an instrument designed only to kill, will reveal more of his 'deep' character than hours of endless talk, no matter how probing.

By the way, and in terms of a illustration that you can take as you like, both the 'weapons' depicted above are fakes. The sword is a blunt alloy practice iaito and the gun is an imitation BB gun for plastic pellets. They both can hurt you, but so can a plastic spoon.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Manbearpig

The only comment I have regarding a certain recent decision of the Nobel committee...

Do-Gooders Go Global

So, it's official, the Obesity Epidemic is a global phenomenon, which is worrying those who aren't already worried to distraction by Global Warming.


Do-gooders in search of a cause will no doubt rejoice; with an implicit license to transcend international boundaries and do their dirty work anywhere it damn well pleases them—because, after all, it isn't the fault of the obese that they are obese! The best way to combat this, at least in the 'obesogenic'—I f....g well kid you not! that's a word now!—societies where this is possible, is to install yet more cameras, preferably and most effectively in people's houses. Maybe, if they're outfitted with some serious behavior-recognition software, not only could we ensure that dietary offenders get punished—maybe by electric shock or laser zapping—and thus become conditioned in the manner of Pavlovian dogs to swear off injuring themselves through food, but quite possibly such tendencies might be spotted, with really advanced, internet-based software provided by and included with 'automatic updates' by Microsoft®, thus actually preventing such injuries before the stupid dimwits can actually take a bite of that obesifying food.

And that's just one hi-tech solution, which ignores the many other options of delivering behavior conditioning to those incapable of policing their own habits—meaning basically everybody but those who know better. Of course.

I am so looking forward to the South Park piss-take on the Global Obesity Epidemic (GOE)!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sunlight and Cancer: An Inverse Correlation

With three 'light-skinned' women in my family this here appears highly pertinent and worthy of a small blog entry to call attention to it.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Beauty: Where Does It Go To When It Goes Away?

To which (or a similar question) the father of Guyal of Sfere replied: "Beauty is a luster which love bestows to guile the eye. Therefore it may be said that only when the brain is without love will the eye look and see no beauty."

My buddy Haszari—and yes, I really do know where he is sitting and whence he sees what he sees: about 30 seconds down the hallway from my office—responded to my last post with the 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' rote, which is related to what I wrote, but is is also a non sequitur; defining, as it does, a different space of meaning altogether. His response maps more into Jack Vance's fictional response by Guyal's much-tried father.

For what beauty 'is' requires a definition—at least if we want to talk about it and understand mutually what it is we're talking about! Where it exists, if you will, may well be an entirely different question that will complete our understanding of it, but it is different entirely to the 'what'.

Thing is 'beauty', like everything else, doesn't just exist in a vacuum. It's a linguistic term and stands for something, and—yeah, I know you know that by now!—every half-decent General Semanticist will tell you, as I do, that every word describing an object or a concept requires a definition that links it to that which is points at.

The other thing is that literally everything in the conceptual universe—that is, the universe we experience cognitively—is indeed in the 'eye of beholder'. Hence the rote about beauty being there is without any significant semantic content, except in the sense that it says that 'beauty' is a concept of sorts and therefore is one of those things which is in the eye of the beholder. Big deal.

Of course, the purpose of the beauty-rote is merely to put it into a place where the concept itself becomes essentially inaccessible to any inspection outside the scope of the individual. Now, it may be true that the experience and awareness of what beauty is and does, is potentially sufficiently different between people, so that talking about it is pointless. But then...well, then there's really no point in talking about it, and why should anybody ever say to anybody else "You're beautiful!" or point at something and say "Isn't this beautiful?" unless it were not to make a statement about an actual 'property' of something—a lover, a sunrise—but merely an enumeration of instances of individually perceived 'beauty', that hopefully conveys to the person it's being conveyed to, something about what the speaker considers 'beautiful'.

But that's not what we do when we make those declarations! We presume the pre-existence of some understanding of the concept; a shared definition of sorts. 'Art' presumes such a shared definition, no matter how much 'in the eye of the beholder' it may be. The concept of 'beauty', much as the concept of 'love' is a cultural binding element, and it will serve to distinguish this culture from that one. It is a shared personal experience of some sort, which is given the name 'beauty'. While this experience when applied to certain things—like, for example, objects of 'art', or just human faces and shapes—may differ even between persons inside the same culture, there is something there nonetheless that we all sense we share. And when someone tries to define it, as that, possibly fictitious, line from Next, then we should acknowledge it for what it is. Not necessarily something complete or all-encompassing; but nonetheless and attempt to delineate the nature of something that serves to bind people together—usually in a positive way.

And, as definitions go, this one was good. Just like the reply of Gyual's father, though it kind-of avoided a direct reply; which could not be given to the question as it was obviously intended by the questioner. But at least Gyual was perceptive enough not ask what beauty 'is'. Instead he posed the question from an existentialist point of view: "Where does beauty vanish when it goes?" (This is the original quote.)

What something 'is' defines itself mostly, as some would argue—including I—by what it does or what effect it has on those objects or people it affects. And here, too, the longer I think about it, the more I actually like that definition that prompted my buddy to pen his last comment.

And look what he got in response!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Beauty

"There's an Italian painter, named Carlotti, and he defined beauty. He said it was the summation of the parts working together in such a way that nothing needed to be added, taken away or altered..." (From Next.)

Now, I actually have serious doubts about the origins of this, but as a cool line in a dialog—and also as a pickup line; and especially with what was said immediately afterwards—this one's a definite grabber; and already it has been adopted across a wide spectrum of the internet as if its antecedents were impeccable. Not that I mind, but you gotta be careful.

Still, doesn't it matter more what's being said here than who really said it? If it had been Socrates, would that have lent it increased worthiness-of-consideration?

I guess you know what I'd say about that.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Birthdays are good for you...

Statistics prove that the people who have the most live the longest.

That was quoting from a birthday card that arrived somewhat belated, partially because the stupid English still do 'postal strikes'.

It's nice to have offspring who not only have a great sense of humor, but also know what makes their father laugh!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Next

"Here is the thing about the future, every time you look at, it changes—because you looked at it, and that changes everything else."

Cool flick: Next. Nick Cage, Jessica Biel and Julianne Moore. Even Lee Tamahori couldn't screw it up.

IMDb synopsis: Las Vegas showroom magician Cris Johnson has a secret which torments him: he can see a few minutes into the future. Sick of the examinations he underwent as a child and the interest of the government and medical establishment in his power, he lies low under an assumed name in Vegas, performing cheap tricks and living off small-time gambling "winnings." But when a terrorist group threatens to detonate a nuclear device in Los Angeles, government agent Callie Ferris must use all her wiles to capture Cris and convince him to help her stop the cataclysm.

Behind the bland synopsis hide quite a few twists and thought. I certainly didn't see the thing at the end coming; which is always a nice surprise. But it made sense, despite the fact that I am not sure how one little but critical item fit in there. Maybe I'll watch the important bits again, just to figure out if it hangs together—after all, everything else does. Reminds me, in more ways than one, of Deja Vu. No surprises there. 'Time' and all that.

The whole issue is fascinating, to me at least. I mean, suppose we could foresee the future and what would happen as a result of us doing this or that thing. Well, actually we can and do all the time. Our brains are, after all, future-projectors. That's what 'intelligence' is all about. Never mind that sometimes, when considering people's truly dismal stupid behavior, you'd doubt it; but all flippancy aside, this is what we do: project into the future and act such as to maximize 'desired' outcomes; whatever it happens to be we desire. Make what is and what should be become the same.

But that's not something 'psychic', like what the protagonist from Next is able to do. On the other hand, let's just suppose—and Next is all about 'let's suppose' or 'what if', and it propounds, inter alia, a theory about 'magicians' I long ago propounded myself, namely that some of them are actually for real, and merely pretend not to be: a kind of deceptive triple-cross—that one could 'foresee' in the predictable and systematic kind of way Cris Johnson does.

Isn't there an inherent paradox here; yet one that could be resolved by the simple expedient of understanding 'forseeing'—in the 'oracular', mystical sense, if you will—as merely an ability to see, in an intuitive way, the many paths of possibility that lie ahead for any given action? Of course, one would assume that knowledge other than that readily accessible and explainable is also involved. Yet do we truly know all the modes in which we acquire 'knowledge' about the context we find ourselves in?

Well, do we?

I certainly wouldn't presume to give a definite answer to that.

Anyway, treat yourselves to Next. There's a homage to Clockwork Orange, too!


Sunday, October 14, 2007

In the Beginning Was the End (parte quinta): If You're Standing You Ain't Moving.

...or 'Every journey begins with the first step.' Or 'If you don't get your ass into gear, don't blame anybody else.'

Though standstill may act as a suitable hindrance to precipitous action, it is only if it exists as that transitional state that it becomes our servant instead of our master. Only old and tired men think that prolonged standstill is beneficial. Life is movement. Only in death will you find stillness. Thanks, but no, thanks!

In the course of one's life standstill takes a number of forms. I am here referring to those visible in the context of 'developed western civilization'. Said restriction is deliberate, since I'm acutely aware that at other places and other times in history things are and were different. So, please take what follows with these cautions.

One area of 'standstill' is 'professional' and I'll stick to that, because it's illustrative of a much wider area of human endeavor. People do stuff and they keep on doing it just because they started doing it and/or because they ended up being some sort of 'expert' in it; or because they are comfortable doing this because of it's something they know and therefore not scary; or something along those lines.

Also, and one should not underestimate the influence of this, people tend to get typecast by those employing them or prospectively employing them. I had to do serious battle to be allowed to become a 'documentation' person or a 'technical writer'—which is my current professional label—when all people ever saw was a 'programmer': a role I slipped into by contingency, and not by choice to begin with. Right now, of course, I'm being labeled a 'technical writer'—and that generally means people don't expect you to understand stuff having to do with, for example, 'design', because you don't have the requisite credentials; and tech writers aren't expected to 'do' or know much about design of a visual nature. Which means that people expect you to be able to 'write' and understand about technology and science, but not to know anything about the difference between RGB and CMYK or global or spot colors; or about aesthetics and making things look good and snazzy and appealing; about the secrets of 'layout'; 'style'; 'flair'; proportion...

'Specialization is for insects,' wrote Heinlein, but if you don't specialize these days you're basically right royally screwed, because you're battling every step of the way to make your way into professional areas jealously guarded by those who have spent good money to earn the appropriate degrees that give them the keys to said professions, and who have a vested interest in promoting to consumers of their services—i.e. employers—the notion that such degrees are basically a prerequisite for being able to do certain jobs. Well, it's bullshit; pure and simple. Fact is, I do better 'tech writing'—without ever having had any acquaintance with any form of training in that area—than just about anybody I know; and I do better 'design' than a crapload of those who do have degrees in that area. (Pacem, daughter mine: you are not among them! But you know as well as I do, that a lot are. So, please, no flames, OK?)

At the same time the subtle matter of aesthetic taste is, I believe, not something that can be 'taught', despite what others—again, those with vested interests in convincing you otherwise—would have you believe. Aesthetics is not a matter of knowledge acquired, or of some appropriate training or conditioning, but of having a 'feeling' for the right and the wrong; almost an additional sense, that you either have or you don't. It may be genetic. I do stem from a family of artists, but I was the renegade 'scientifically' inclined offspring. And what did I end up doing in my private life, as opposed to 'professional'? Ha! Do I hear maniacal PTB-laughter ringing somewhere?

But more significant even than professional typecasting by potential employers, is that inflicted upon oneself by oneself. Believe me, I know what it feels like to feel truly and honestly stupid, useless and out-of-your-depth in a job you've just taken up. Been there, done it—several times. Each time it happened when the job involved something I was prepared to do, in terms of qualifications and background, but about the specific details of which I had to learn basically everything. And, allowing myself to construe a possible, though unlikely scenario, say someone has a contract for someone more in the 'graphic design' area than strict 'tech writing' and they were desperate enough to hire me, say because they can't find anybody else and so tell themselves that I'm still better than the alternative candidates... Say that were to happen, and suddenly all the accumulated, but 'unofficial', knowledge of mine in the area of doing visual design were put to the real test of an environment where my 'writing' skills would be of little use, and where I'd really have to pull out all the stops in those areas that up to now were only exercised in the context of designing book covers and in various other private projects, as well as doing the various web and for-print design jobs I've done in the context of 'documentation development'...

It's a scenario I would, frankly, welcome; though it won't happen, of course, because that's not the way things work. But would it be scary to be thrown in there? Absolutely. Would it be a definite challenge? No shit! Would I, personally, do it tomorrow if the opportunity offered itself? Abso-damn-lutely. I get excited just thinking about the possibility. Is this a form of advanced neophilia? Don't think so. Just adventure and the desire for some real damn challenge that one can rise up to. For when you get to the stage that you can do things in your sleep—even if the material is in some way 'novel' or something you haven't worked with before—then it's time to move on; for all you'll do in the job you're doing is, to paraphrase Immanuel Kant, leaving ever-deeper footprints. But you're not going anywhere. You're just playing it safe.

'Adventure' is about not knowing what's going to happen. Adventure is about saying 'yes' to something you think you might like to do; which you think you'd think you'd have the competence of doing, despite the slippery steep learning slope you're going to be facing. Adventure is about saying to yourself that, no matter how scary it looks, you'll do what it will take, so that after the adventure opportunity has been offered you'll not only grab it, but put every bit of action where your mouth and intentions are. Don't 'dotry'. Do. Adventure, if it isn't scary, is not 'adventure', but pretending. Adventure is about not minding being scared—and of being willing to leave the comfort of predictable security behind. No need to be stupid about it, of course; but some security has to go. If you can't live without security, forget about adventure. Just sit life out and wait to die—which, for all you know, may be in a few minutes from now. We're all on borrowed time, and there are no second editions and the 'afterlife' is bunk.

But if you're of a mind to start on that adventure you've got to stop doing something else first. After acquiring the competence required to equip yourself for the adventure and whatever it is you're trying to start—said acquisition being a matter of good sense, unless you're really wanting disaster to strike!—you will have to say to yourself one day: no more of this; it ends here and now and henceforth I will only consider that.

Just because you're good at something isn't a sufficient condition for you doing it. What you 'ought to do' is what you need to do—said 'need' being seen in the context of whatever it is that will allow you to fit yourself into whatever happens to be your destiny at the time. Sometimes that means a crap job just because you've got to feed yourself and/or the family, and that's what matters above all. Other times it doesn't. You've got to figure out which is which. And when. That may be the hardest thing of all.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Love is...

Here it was about ways to destroy of the Earth; but this time it's about what you might think of as the polar opposite. Specifically—and that's hard enough without bringing all the other variations into the discussion—that kind usually labeled 'romantic', 'erotic' or whathaveyou.

As happens often when thinking about such things I find inconsistencies in what you might call 'accepted' explanations. And, no, I'm not talking about the religioid varieties. They may be 'accepted' by some, but...well, so is 'intelligent design'. Any adherents of such notions need to read no further.

But the thing—'love' that is—is complicated, no matter how you look at it; and even more so because, as was brought home to me yet again several times over the last few weeks, even a narrow definition, such as that confined to 'romance' and 'eros', opens up a big can of explanatory worms, all of which are trying to strangle each other as best they can. Yeah, I know: worms strangling each other? Weird image. But there you have it. It's growing on me.

'Accepted explanations' for that phenomenon known as 'romantic love' usually focus on a variation on the 'pair bonding' theme, heavily laced with neurochemistry and evolutionary psychology. Here—1 2 3 4—are a few examples of the kind of thing I'm referring to; and I wouldn't dispute any of them. They make very interesting reading for those inclined to read this kind of material. Still—and, dare I say 'fortunately'?—such analyses may not only not even scratch the surface of the phenomenon, but indeed be the answers to questions that may or may not be relevant to actually 'understanding' it.

Let me approach this from a story-teller's, rather than a scientist's point of view for a moment. Of course, I hear you say that maybe that's not exactly aligning myself with the 'accepted explanations' of the phenomenon. Indeed, since all religion is basically fiction—and badly-written fiction at that, by and large—one might even argue that I'm aiming a machine-pistol squarely at my own feet prior to pulling the trigger. After all, anything that emerges from fiction, and especially from the mouths of fictional characters, can hardly be construed as being evidence for anything but the vagaries of...well, 'fiction'—in its myriad incarnations and with its manifold themes and agendas.

Nonetheless...

Thing is, it is immaterial whether the point I'm going to raise exists only in the life of a fictitious character. It does, for a fact, exist in the head of the creator of the fictional character. At the very least. Meaning it exists in the head of some real person somewhere, and hence—by extension and based on the assumption that, speaking in broad and general terms, what goes on in the head of one person is quite likely to also occupies the thoughts of others—probably the heads of a number of 'real people'. So, yes, I am comfortable talking about what this or that 'character'—possibly entirely fictitious—in a novel or screenplay says or does or appears to think.

Anyway, after all these preliminaries, what I was wondering about was this: what does someone think, like maybe the 'fallen star' in Stardust, when s/he declares to someone else, possibly in a lengthy soliloquy as was the case here, that s/he realizes that "I love you"?

Clearly, or so you might be inclined to argue, that depends entirely on the situation, context and person in question; and I agree that the specifics do so indeed. But what about the less-than-specifics? When removing all the cultural and individual contextual overhead, what is the distilled essence of a statement like "I love you"? Presuming, that is, that the culture in question does indeed have the terms and concepts available to actually phrase such a statement in a way that is similar to that in which I and most of those reading this blog would understand it.

I'm sure the emotions exist across members of the human species, but I am doubtful whether one can assume safely that therefore the specific emotion associated with someone sitting down with someone else and making a deliberate declaration of 'love' is equally universal. Or whether the word 'love'—in its admittedly broad spectrum of meanings, even if it is confined just to the romantic/erotic variant—or its equivalent actually does have translations into all human languages. We usually glibly assume that it does, but, given that human thought processes are intimately tied up with language and its associated symbolisms, how can we make such an assumption?

Nobody doubts that there's a universal pair-bonding mechanism at work here—but the question is how much more is there to 'love' than that? Or is there more than that? Can there be? And if there is, then what is it? Is there evidence of any kind that might help us to figure out the 'what'?

Of course, the spottmunds of the world, as well as any decent General Semanticist—each for reasons of their own, of which the latter's is by far the most valid one—will tell you that some of these questions make no sense to begin with, because 'love' really just is what you make it out to be; that's all. It's nothing per se, nor does it 'map' onto anything per se. And when someone suddenly realizes that they 'love' someone, all it means is that the complex of mental processes—thoughts, emotions—in one's head that one happens to be conscious or aware of at the time the epiphany strikes matches up with one's expectations and internal definitions of what constitutes 'love' and the things that go with it; in particular the decisions one makes following from the epiphany; which in itself is a decision, a choosing between seeing whatever there is as 'love' or not seeing it that way. Which makes it, at least in significant part, into a cultural decision; for 'culture', and language, is a major part of the context of our thoughts. Meaning that, apart from the basic baggage of species-procreating evolutionary function, anything that's over and above what's absolutely necessary to make males and females pair-bond for the purpose of continuing the species—as well as 'society' and society-formation and bonding—is basically unnecessary and may or may not be different, as long as it doesn't screw around with the basic function of the process.

Of course, 'culture' is something that has generated a huge amount of 'over-and-above'-things, and in many different contexts. As long as it works, such things may continue to flourish. If it even helps the propagation and survival(!) of the species of a particular subset thereof, so much the better.

If this sounds like I'm trying to deconstruct 'love': far from it! On the contrary. I'm saying that 'love', as it is seen, for example, in the cultural context of 'western civilization', is more than 'just' a phenomenon accompanying or required for 'pair bonding' and propagating the species. You can do the latter without any 'love' whatsoever. A gazillion other species do, including primates who live in complex social contexts. But whatever it is they 'feel', it's not 'love' as we know it. I say this as an unapologetic speciesist, of course; so sue me. Personally I am convinced by the available evidence, scientific and contextual, that no ape will ever ponder in any recognizable way their 'feelings' for another ape in the same way that, say, the fallen star from Stardust expressed to...

[BEGINNING of SPOILER! You may want to skip to the end of the section.]

...well, poor Tristan was a mouse right then, but you get the idea.

Yvaine: You know when I said I knew little about love? That wasn't true. I know a lot about love. I've seen it, centuries and centuries of it, and it was the only thing that made watching your world bearable. All those wars. Pain, lies, hate... It made me want to turn away and never look down again. But when I see the way that mankind loves... You could search to the furthest reaches of the universe and never find anything more beautiful. So yes, I know that love is unconditional. But I also know that it can be unpredictable, unexpected, uncontrollable, unbearable and strangely easy to mistake for loathing, and... What I'm trying to say, Tristan is... I think I love you. Is this love, Tristan? I never imagined I'd know it for myself. My heart... It feels like my chest can barely contain it. Like it's trying to escape because it doesn't belong to me any more. It belongs to you. And if you wanted it, I'd wish for nothing in exchange. No fits. No goods. No demonstrations of devotion. Nothing but knowing you loved me too. Just your heart, in exchange for mine.

[END of Spoiler]

'Love' as it's expressed in that soliloquy is not necessary on evolutionary grounds. It's not even safe to claim that it kind-of 'helps' to...facilitate...things. Indeed it may not do so at all in some circumstances. It's neither a necessary nor a sufficient prerequisite for the accomplishment of task for which it's usually dragged into the discussion.

This lack of necessity for 'love'—taking about the 'romantic' kind here—is actually what makes it into something so particular and, if you will, 'special'; it adds 'value' over and above the value of what 'has to be'. And said value is added by virtue of a 'shape' only possible because of the existence of that thing called 'language'—whatever 'language' that happens to be; though I am, of course, talking about the fairly sophisticated 'natural languages' of the human cultures that allow the construction of such complex edifices of thought and emotions.

'Emotions'? Well, yes. The separation between 'thought' and 'emotion' is arbitrary anyway; something that's becoming more obvious with every bit of neurological investigation. Another antiquated concept, a leftover from the bad old days of cognitive ignorance, and by now we actually do know better. It hasn't filtered through into the area of 'general knowledge' yet—and that includes the 'knowledge' of sclerotic cognitive philosophers—but surely it must soon. Or so one would hope.

Am I saying that humans with different linguistic systems will be cognizant of distinctly different versions of 'love'; and that they may actually not be able to fully understand another culture's version of it, if that culture has a significantly different language—just like they don't really 'get' the essence of the language. As someone who speaks, and has had extensive thoughts in, three different languages, I can assure you that this is a significant issue. Ability to 'translate' isn't a sufficient condition for the existence of 'understanding'. I leave it to you to ponder if it is actually a necessary condition though.

Am I also saying that a creature without the complex kind of language humans take for granted will not be able to experience similar kinds of value-added 'love'?

Am I implying that this provides sufficient and valid reasons for being speciesist—and a human speciesist at that?

Food for more thought.

We have it easy!

We don't, after all, live and blog in Cuba.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

My new toy: EyeTV

So, for my birthday, I got me one of these:

This isn't the real one, and my computer is actually a MacBook; but you get the idea. Like all Mac products the procedure of setting it up was simple, taking no more than 15 minutes:
  1. Plug in the doodacky.
  2. Run the installer, which included automatic tuning and finding and setting up the broadcast channels in my area. (That's what took most of the setup time, since it was doing a fine-tooth comb search through the frequency spectrum for signals.)
  3. Watch TV on the MacBook.
Cool!

Oh, yes, and I forgot: EAT YOUR HEART OUT!

Conspiracy Theory

'They'—whoever 'they' may be—say that the best conspiracy theory is one which is so outrageous that it's just got to be fiction. That this provides a cover so deep and so profound, so layered with multiple versions of "I don't believe it!"—excepting conspiracy nuts, of course; who believe everything; which makes them so stupid—that said conspiracy may safely continue to exist and even flourish ad infinitum.

OK, so, I wonder what do you make of this then?

Tiger, Tiger on the wall...

This is such a cool picture from my 2007 Tigers calendar that I thought it was worth sharing. It's the one associated with October, that being a most important month for the world and mankind, what with it being the month of my birth and all that. I wonder it it means anything...

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Unit rocks

Well, it's the 'new season' season in US TV, which means the TV series start up again, with NCIS, CSI Miami, Prison Break and The Unit the main ones in my sights. Since I've locked myself into the time-frame of the US schedules—meaning one year ahead of what is shown in New Zealand—by getting stuff through my trusty P2P networks, this is the way it's going to be, I suppose; though on some series I actually still have to catch up on some episodes on the previous season.

This is not the case for The Unit, which is a watch-asap show. The first two episodes of S3 resolved, sort of, the cliff-hanger of the end of S2. I can say that without being too spoiler-ish, because it was kinda predictable that they would do this. The interesting part was how they resolved it, with there being several nice twists, plus some clear political statements by the writers, and the producer(s), I guess. I don't disagree with any of them.

Above all it was good to see the boys back kicking ass, including that of their perfidious superiors. Like Prison Break, some of the scripting suggested a leaning toward a conspiracy theory that I'm not sure holds water; but what the heck: it's fiction! Besides, they may be right; though of course this theory, if it does hold water, is of such a nature that those who might feel threatened by having 'the truth' exposed can be reasonably certain that, by and large, nobody's going to, like, seriously believe it, because it's so outrageous.

I know that anti-American conspiracy nuts do believe it and probably consider it as a matter of 'duh' fact, but I don't really care much about their opinions. Conspiracy fervents, usually those found on the serious-left of the political spectrum, recall, for me at least, those PETA dementos who were indicted for cruelty to animals a couple of years back. The dark side of animal activism. And you thought you'd seen it all...

Anyway, The Unit is back as cool as ever, and aren't I glad to see the boys back!

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Narrative hypnosis

Ruminating over the landscapes of some issues the other day I chanced across the Wikipedia entry for Neurolinguistic Programming, a practice that owes a lot to General Sematics. In the article reference is made to something called the Milton Model, named after Milton H Erickson, as a "way of using language to induce and maintain trance in order to contact the hidden resources of our personality", and also "to overload and distract the conscious mind so that unconscious communication can be cultivated".

It's revealing to come across something I've noted on several occasions in connection with the powers of good story telling from a different angle. What surprises me is that in the realm of story-tellers this aspect appears to be by and large ignored; as those holding forth on the structure, purpose and nature of 'story' tends to focus in on those things—structure, plot, language, beats, and so on. Is it possible that the deep answers to questions like "Why Do We Tell Stories?" cannot be found in such analyses, and not even in those attempting to find evolutionary/psychological roots? It makes me wonder if the real reason isn't more like that we quite simply enjoy being in the kinds of entranced states created by stories. And what is this 'entrancement' but the thing often labeled as 'entertainment'? Or, to put it the other way around, isn't 'entertainment' just a form of 'entrancement'?

It would be very funny—'funny' 'haha'!—if it turned out that this is indeed the case; or, that it is indeed the major factor in the 'why'. None of this highfalutin deep-and-meaningful bullshit emerging from the arty and academic communities, but just a plain old desire to be entertained: entranced; placed into a state of being that detaches one from the woes of the intermediate world.

What if that was all the reason there is? What if it was all about something like trance through guided imagination? Being outside oneself and one's current present-ness.

What if there were no better reason to tell stories but that people like to listen to them; to be en-tranced, just as they would be through, say, chemical agents? And if people are willing to listen, watch, read, then naturally there's a market for those providing the material. And people do seem to be willing to do so, as evidenced by...well, evidence. How much time do you spend in front of a TV? How much are you willing to shell out for the technology, books, cinema tickets, computer games—for what amounts to, from a utilitarian point of view, completely unproductive activities? (With the exception of maybe their value for initiating pair-bonding between susceptible, thus-inclined individuals!)

Of course, it should come as no surprise that the medium has been exploited for manipulative purposes, an activity that continues not only unabated, but at an accelerating pace, as the media...

Nahh, I'm not going to get on that soap box today, sorry.

Question is though whether, and here we have to think a few steps further, this en-trancement and the desire to achieve it, and its dogged persistence, have any significance in the realm of social and species survival. For 'persistent' it has been. After all prostitution and story-telling are possibly the two oldest 'professions'.

Or is it all just accident and without any 'survival' value. It could just be that it didn't do any harm, this desire for en-trancement, and that therefore it wasn't weeded out as a trait during the evolutionary process. And so it persisted and persists, and the market-forces require that there be providers of the means to achieve en-trancement; as market forces are wont to do. Hence there exist all of those in the 'entertainment' business. Hence TV, cinema, radio. Hence books! My bookshelves, which definitely have more 'entertainment' material on them than whatever else there is—not-so-entertaining stuff, I guess— are a mute testimony to my own need for said en-trancements.

I haven't made up my mind yet as to which version of the 'Why Entertainment?' story I believe. Evolutionary utility? Innocuous waste of time?

Am I—in my persona as story-teller; meaning the guy who wrote, for example the books of the Tethys series—just someone indulging my own fancy for not just 'receiving', if you will, stories and en-trancement, but actually dishing it out; mainly by writing down yarns I enjoy spinning in my head anyway, just because? A mere 'entertainer'? Or is it 'mere'?

But, yes, let's admit it, this story-telling business, no matter how carefully disguised as having a 'greater purpose, is basically self-indulgent and is driven by a need-to-do that transcends mere need-to-fame. Which is, I guess, why some people just keep doing it. The personal rationalizations used to support it are comforting and may even have a grain or two, or three, of veracity, but they are rationalizations. And if there's any 'higher purpose' in it all...well, there may be, but I'm not sure that I can list some of the candidates for the job and keep a straight face.

If a writer does not entertain his readers, all he is producing is paper dirty on one side.” wrote Robert Heinlein (Grumbles from the Grave, Chapter 15)

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

In the Beginning was the End (parte quarta)


"Spend the money, mobilize the scientists, and hunt down Death like an outlaw," wrote Alan Harrington. And: "Having invented the gods, we can now turn into them."

Have I mentioned that Mr. Harrington had a profound influence on my thinking? Do treat yourself to The Immortalist some day soon. You may never be the same person again and never look at life the same way either. Or you may. In which case let me quote good old Albert Einstein: "Insanity is when you think that doing more of what you are already doing will lead to a different outcome." In a similar vein doing more of the same kind of thinking will also lead to nothing but ever-deeper imprints in the ground of your existence.

Of course, on might argue, not entirely unreasonably, that a long-term emortalist like myself could also do with re-thinking and some fresh perspectives. Thing is that emortalism by definition is replete with fresh perspectives. It is, after all, an affirmation of living: here and now and for as long as possible. Changing that—to something truly silly maybe, like a religioid perspective—appears counterproductive.

I mean, it would be nice if there were a true 'afterlife' that's more than, at best, a dim and fading shadow of whatever exists here and now. Say, something like what's depicted in What Dreams May Come, which is one of my favorite flicks—ironically; yes I know, and you may have that little chuckle on my account. But remember, as you do, that the movie ended on a reincarnation theme, so there's something to ponder before you laugh too loudly. And remember that, much more than about 'afterlife' it was about love—of the kind that follows the loved one into doom and damnation if this was the path it had to take.

And then there's Dead Like Me, a TV series I still have to work my way through, or maybe Medium, where Allison Dubois, a character based on a real person, chats to departed that are, to her, occasionally indistinguishable from live people. And so on. The fantasies that have sprung up around the notion that 'death is just the beginning'—quoting whom and from which movie? testing, testing!—and that it's actually quite cool to be dead, are as old as humankind's awareness of the dire nature of non-existence following existence.

Now, I admit without hesitation, that I have little-to-no actual knowledge of what happens to, as Gore Vidal once put it, 'precious little me after I die'. But then again, with possibly the exception of a very, very few individuals who can really and truly perceive things the rest of us can't—and the existence of said individuals is, itself, very much a matter of dispute—neither do 99.9999999% of the rest of humanity; the 'living' ones. Those who do not qualify as 'alive' anymore may or may not know. That, too, however, is a matter of, at best, speculation and conjecture.

Thing is, if I had sufficient evidence to believe that some of this afterlife stuff is actually as real or maybe more than...well, the fact that I'm sitting at a computer right now typing these words...if there were sufficient convincing evidence for it...Cool! Roll on, death. New adventure coming! I'd be game to have a look at this amazing new world.

But...but...

There is no evidence qualifying as 'sufficiently convincing'—not to me anyway. There is some evidence for some kind of post-death survival in ways that are scientifically not considered respectable; but it's nowhere close to what religions or mystery cults would have us believe. If anything, it tends to reinforce the notion that this life here and now is even more precious, or 'significant' if you will, than even emortalists like me give it credit for.

What's all that got to do with the end being there in the beginning?

Well, the little creature up there is, of course, the Methuselah Mouse. The broken cane he carries—or is it a 'she'? who knows?—symbolizes the breaking of our subjugation to the inevitability of death caused by 'ageing', which is a rather common cause of human fatalities. And the end of 'certain death'—meaning predictable death at the hands of that killer of all killers, the last of your enemies: old age— on a large scale will no doubt be a beginning of something that has no precedent in history.

You can't have a beginning without ending something. The notion that you can is at best foolish and at worst self-defeating. It is the result of wanting to hold onto what is there, simply because we generally have a hard time letting go of things. If you take that approach you just end up lugging more and more baggage around with you, and ultimately you find that you can't go anywhere anymore, because that baggage is holding you firmly in your current place with its weight and inertia.

"Ahh," I hear someone say, "But isn't that just like the 'baggage' of the body and this life holding you down, when really you ought to leave it all behind and go forward into that new life offered only by death."

Point taken. But I'd like to point out that the leap of faith required—against the available evidence—to accept death as a 'new beginning' is just a tad too great. New beginnings may require the ending of old things, but it's probably a good idea to make sure that there actually is something on the other side of that bridge, which, once crossed, will self-destruct forever. It's one of the obvious uses to which we can put that thing we call our 'intelligence'.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Birthdays

Today happens to be my birthday. I won't tell you the how-many-eth it is, and since I'm writing this from the opposite side of the world to where I was born, there are some issues regarding time-zones, but as far as I'm concerned this is it.

One of my daughters sent me three of the most screamingly funny cards—all sequenced, like "this is #1 and this is #2 and this is #3", because she was trying to make a point, I suppose; or tell a story. The most important thing is that I know she spent time on these things, and time is the one irreplaceable commodity in this life; time and, I guess, 'opportunity'. Together they combine to offer us 'choice'. On a purely personal level, what else is there? And so, thank you!

And, yes, equally dear other daughter, I know that you, too, have spent significant time on your dad, in more ways and on more occasions than one!

And all that talk about 'time', somewhat somberly perhaps, brings me to a man, who doesn't have much of that precious time left in this life. His 'least lecture' can be found here. This video is almost feature-movie length. So, be warned: it'll require some of your precious time! Bandwidth, too. It is an in-your-face reminder that, when it comes down to it, very few things truly matter. The pervasive blindness of most people to those things is at the very least saddening. This same blindness is also responsible for most of the human misery in this world.

Not nice thoughts for a birthday? And why not? Isn't it the one day when you should think of these things? 'Celebration' can take many forms. It doesn't have to be parties. I'd give all the parties in the world for one single important insight I haven't had before, or for the knowledge that some people do care enough about me to give to me, of their own free-willed choice, the gift of their time.