Friday, January 30, 2009

Aslam Book Cover: Version 2

Just thinking about covers, as I do sometimes, because the cover is kinda part of the story.

Thought I might go for a change of style; even more so than the first iteration, which was this: this:

Bit more dramatic. Might add some blood, too. We'll see.

Anyway; just thinking...

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Health and Manners

An interesting viewpoint. Many will say "not surprising", while others will say "bullshit".

Nevertheless, here it is.

Russell's Teapot

I found this a few days ago. Something I didn't know about until then, but which, predictably, resonates with me. It was Russel's answer to those who would assert that the burden of proof, for disproving the existence of God for example, lies with the skeptic; not the believer:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

And here is something for people who like logical puzzles. Of course, a General Semanticist wouldn't have any problem seeing through this problem in a thrice. Without bragging, may I say that I knew what the question was going to be before I had read it to the end, and the answer was perfectly clear immediately, mainly because I'd actually read the piece and the one crucial word, carrying an equally crucial semantic component, was missing. It's not a question of intelligence or education or logical capability, or any crap like that, but a matter of looking at things in particular ways.

Having told you all this, it might, of course, make it easier to answer...

Suppose there is a village in which all the adult males are clean shaven. In the village is a barber. The barber shaves all and only those adult males who do not shave themselves. So, if Bob shaves himself then the barber does not shave Bob. And, if Bob does not shave himself then the barber does shave Bob.

Question: Does the barber shave himself?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

AUSTRALIA - The Movie: Our Stories, Our Lives.

Friends who visited us from antipodean shores gave us an excellent excuse to see Australia again—in the cinema, rather than on DVD, which would otherwise have been the usual course of events.

Our friends loved it—being people of discernment and impeccable taste—as I had known they would. I liked it even more than I did on first viewing, which tells me a lot about the caliber of the film and the plain silly, and of scurrilous, nature of the criticisms leveled at it.

Anyway, during second viewing, some themes became clearer. Maybe the one most noticeable to me had to do with that aspect of the culture of indigenous Australians concerned with 'property' and 'possession'; something that has been a major factor in the destruction of the culture, because it left them with basically no defense against 'our' culture, if you will, which had elevated 'possession' to major goal in life and within the context of our value systems. Possession not just of material goods; but of land and whatever is on or under or even above it; of people, be it at the level of 'personal' ownership, such as of a lover, or more impersonally of slaves or underlings of any sort; and so on.

Other cultures, such as the Maori/Pacific Islands ones, who encountered the Europeans mainly in New Zealand—as well as wherever else they went, had significantly different philosophies to the Australian indigens, and thus put up what amounts to a much more successful fight; as it turns out now, with 'Western' culture drowning in paroxysms of its own, self-inflicted guilt—for the deeds of generations long gone that are in no way the fault of the generations currently existing; unless said generations insist on repeating historical injustices and retaining implicit prejudices, as many indeed appear to do; said continutaion being evidenced by the continuing prevalence of what amounts to carefully-concealed anti-Semitism.

Lest anybody thinks that I'm out to do some good old lefty bashing of my own culture...well, I am not. If one looks at China and Japan, as well as cultures and traditions all over Asia, South America and much of Africa, one finds similar proclivities or worse. 'Possession' is at the core of much of this; even we're just dealing with ownership of goats or something like that. Potahto, potaito.

Of course, ownership is a built-in, because ownership creates security—as much as it can—through the power to dispose over the resources one is in possession of. And the creation of security, working on behalf of one's survival and that of one's depdendants etc, is what possession, or acquisitiveness, is ultimately all about.

But many cultures have elevated the whole thing to the level of idol, and this includes our culture. The admiration (and envy and jealousy) bestowed on those who have acquired possessions, the more the better, by those who haven't done as well, is a pathetic sight to behold. Even if it is carefully concealed by many, its signs are everywhere nonetheless. One just has to look for them, and they're all over the place. And those who claim to be 'non materialistic' are often the most pathetic ones, hypocrites to the bone and marrow.

Anyway, back to Australian indigenous people, also known as 'Australian Aborigines', and the movie Australia. Being human, like the rest of us, they're of course no less subject to the lure of 'possession'. However, in the context of their culture—split into many tribal sub-cultures, all resident in a land consisting mostly of desert; with the sun burning down mercilessly for most of the year—the accumulation of possessions to any great extent was both difficult and impractical. There really is very little to 'possess' or 'own'.

The land? Hardly. What would one do with it, except to travel across it and hunt there? Livestock? Not much of that about either, though Dingoes have been known to have been tamed and used as domestic animals. What else is there in terms of 'possess-able' resources? Not much. Slavery is impractical in the environment, context and with the populations under consideration. You might count among your prized possessions a spear, boomerang or something along those lines; but that's a short-term thing. All made from wood, used for hunting and they will probably break sooner rather than later.

Everything is transient, including the lives of those around you, which are short, as is your own. Nothing is permanent, it seems...

...except maybe the rocks and paintings your ancestors left behind, and which you in turn might also leave for those who follow.

But the desire to 'have' something that is not as evanescent and transient is strong in humans. It may even qualify as a 'need'.

And so, out of all this, shaped by contingency and environment, arose a culture that just so happened to figure out a fundamental truth about what we are as human beings. Not that they would necessarily reflect on this in those terms, because in order to see things 'comparatively' one needs to be able to step back and gain what is known as 'perspective'. But it doesn't matter. The fact is that the Australian Aborigines have, quite unwittingly and unknowingly, unearthed this basic truth about us all:

Not only are we our 'stories', but our stories is all we'll ever actually 'have'.

This is so shatteringly simple that Western science—an endeavor that can rightly claim to have 'discovered' significant things about the universe, and of late also about ourselves as physical creature—has only within the last few decades, after millennia of probing in dark cellars for black cats that weren't, aren't and never will be there, figured out that maybe something along those lines is going on.

The simple things are often the real hard ones, because if we ponder stuff like that at all, and this goes for philosophers in particular, we tend to overthink the plumbing; to the extend of creating so many bends and joints and junctions that nobody can keep track of the system and everything get clogged up with gunk snagged in the piping.

(And, no, I am not advocating simpleton-hood, but 'simplicity', which is a very different thing!)

It is possible, of course, that I, like anybody who does this or that and therefore has a particular point of view of things—which means literally everybody!—sees something in this 'story' thing that others just won't, no matter how hard they try, if they're bothering to try at all. Well, maybe that's the case, but I think (surprise!) that it isn't, and that there is a truth here that could give us all the perspective on 'materialist' and 'spiritual' life that we'll ever need—if only because it happens to be just so!

The Australian Aborigines get as possessive about their stories—whether they are their communal, tribal or personal ones—as any of us would get about something we considered we own and which someone would like to take from us.

Or maybe more so even! And why shouldn't they?

Because, just think of the erosion of our personal privacy through the increasingly invasive network of governmental and commercial probing and prodding and data mining and statistical analysis and so on. What is that thing we call 'privacy' but a measure of our ownership of our personal stories—which we would probably think of as 'identities'—about what and who we are, and what we give away of it and to whom? And what does it say about us, that we give it away so lightly and unthinkingly and cowardly—in the name of whatever rationalization we care to invent?

And, so, when we look upon this culture of the desert, who have habits of personal life, hygiene—and, let's face it, whose society exhibits some pretty horrific social phenomena that come about as a direct result of the culture being destroyed by circumstances that are beyond the control of anybody—and views of life and the universe and what's what, that most of us would find incomprehensible and indeed outright weird...then let us not forget, that among all these irrelevancies of daily life and the vagaries of human existence, these are the people who once upon a time—and soon it will indeed be just 'once upon a time'—knew something that we and all our great wise men have missed, despite all the thinking and arguing and pondering and whatever else we might have done.

Australia did the world a service by bringing this to the attention of the world—who in turn doesn't seem to care much for the film, if the box office takings are anything to go by. It's really sad that this is so; not just for the film makers, but for those who listened to critics—and so are missing out on something that might actually have benefited them.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

'Emergency Demonstrations': Oxymoron cubed

Recently I've been introduced to a concept so strange and bizarre, that it needs to be shared: The Emergency Demonstration.

I really have no idea what it means, so maybe an example is best:

You invite some people for lunch.

They say "yes, great; love to come."

Two days before the event someone from the invited party calls and says "Sorry about that, but we can't make the lunch. An Emergency Demonstration has been called, to protest against the slaughter of Palestinians by the Israelis."

I'm not even going to go into questions like whether attendance at any demonstration is to be considered more important than a nice social get-together among friends and family. Those are personal decisions that one can either respect or not.

But they have nothing to do with the whole bizarre nature of an 'Emergency Demonstration'; especially if said demonstration is honestly and truly and absolutely not going to make sparrow's fart of difference to whatever the 'emergency' pertains to.

I'll just leave it at this, because there's no point in belaboring the concept. I mean, in order to discuss something it has to have some meaning, something coherent that allows one to analyze it in semantic terms.

But 'Emergency Demonstration'?

Could this be the ultimate oxymoron?

Maybe we're onto something there!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Just Because It's a Problem, That Don't Mean It Can Be Solved

Sometimes, when you least expect it, and often quite belatedly, I get responses to my blogs that really surprise me. In this instance the comment came from an old friend of mine, from whom I had not heard for quite a while.

What he so casually wrote in his comment revealed just exactly how much we take certain things for granted. Existential things. Stuff about life. Of course, the man's an engineer and so he would be expected to think as he does; but the fact is that it is a part of our Western culture to think as he does.

What I brought up in my blog was what you might call a "social problem": the brains of rich kids are different to the brains of poor kids. Just exactly why, is a question that other people can discuss, but the point I'm trying to make here is that it is a problem; but there was nothing in what I said that suggested how to deal with it.

My friend, quite rightly, asked me what kinds of suggestions I had to address the problem. This very question makes two implicit assumptions:
  1. Delineating or exposing a problem ought to come with suggestions for solutions.
  2. Problems can be solved.
This is very 'Western' attitude, flag-shipped by the religious philosophy that accompanied the development of 'Western' culture. You won't find it so much—if at all—in, say, nations steeped in Islamic traditions.

It's also an attitude that bears the stamp of Western individualism—which goes hand in hand with religion, of course—and it is closely connected to the notion that individuals can solve problems, if only they put their minds and determinations to it.

It's the attitude that has ultimately made 'Western' science and technology supreme, because ultimately, and when all the philosophical bullshit is disposed with, solving problems is what science and technology is all about.

But, just like what one might see as Eastern fatalism ultimately turns out to be a view that does not correspond to reality, the same thing is true of the Western 'problems are made to be solved' approach. That is because they're not. It's a nice thing to imagine that they are, but then again, we can imagine a lot of things that are nice or which seem right. And that certainly includes the notion that problems are there to be solved, because it gives us a notion of, entirely presumed but mainly illusory, power over life and contingency and the randomness of existence.

But the operational term here is 'illusory'. To understand why problems not in any way there to be solved, consider this: What is a problem?

Sounds like a tough proposition for definition, but it really isn't. Going back to the basics of "what is it?", any problem is nothing but an instance of something in somebody's or everybody's life not being as said somebody (or everybody) would like it to be. Things as they are vs. them being as they should be as per our specs. this even applies to something abstract like a 'math problem'.

A 'solution' to such a problem is merely a situation where, on some scale, and within the applicable context—either through accident, design or action—there exists a state where what should be actually is what is, if you will.

Simple, is it not?

Because of what they are, problems never exist outside a human context. Nature per se isn't problematic in any way. It just is. The only ones who have issues with some things being as they are, are us. Hence we are the only ones with 'problems' to solve.

But some things simply will never be as we would like them to—or, as some might have it, "they should be." That's because the universe simply doesn't give a rat's ass about what we think 'should be'. We are the only ones who do. Or maybe you., dear reader, think that God is. But I'd like to remind you of Steve Buscemi's immortal line in The Island: " know, when you want something really bad and you close your eyes and you wish for it? God's the guy that ignores you."

So, and here we come back to the beginning, it surely must be limpidly clear by now why the real thing about 'problems' is not about how to solve them, but to figure which ones can be solved—that is, what in this world can be made to be as it should (as per our specs). And then, when we've sorted that one out, we can start tackling the way in which we might go about implementing it.

And so, to my esteemed correspondent, I reply that, no, I don't have a solution to the issue I raised, because I am not convinced that it is a problem that lends itself to solution to begin with.

Now, what's the use of broaching problems that may have no solution? Isn't that unconstructive, or something similarly negative?

Well, I don't think so. For the more we understand the extent to which what we want and what is don't line up, the better are we likely to be able to form appropriate judgments on what to do.

And that was that.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Foreign Accent Syndrome: Brain Damage or Possession?

So here's the thing: there is something called foreign language syndrome, or foreign accent syndrome. It happens only rarely, and documented cases are few. Not so long ago there was an instance in Queensland, Australia, and it was reported on TV a few days ago. This was the first time I heard about it. So I went and looked it up on the Internet, and found quite a few references.

By and large it appears that even though people have a lot of theories as to how it happens, most of these theories actually explain nothing at all. There is a lot of talk about how the syndrome relates to other psychological disorders, but just exactly what it is and what happens in the brain when it happens nobody seems to know.

And what is it that happens? Well, people who spoke in one accent one day and then have a brain disease or some trauma, may end up talking in the accents of quite a different country the next day, even though they have no real knowledge of those other countries' accents. One of the most interesting things associated with the syndrome is that at the same time as the accent changes so does the personality. Such changes are usually temporary and go away by themselves in due course.

The TV program about the recent Australian case showed video of the patient. The change in accent, inclination, rhythm and the general demeanor was startling. A psychiatrist who was asked for comment was very vague about it all, and basically said that it just happens occasionally and that it is because things have happened in the brain. In the commentary there was a brief reference to reincarnation, but that was about the only reference to anything that was not strictly 'scientific'. I suppose, they did not want to be accused of putting on a fluff piece, even though it was a fluff piece, because it focused on the woman's effect on the people around her after her sudden change. Typical 'human interest' story, in which the really interesting things were lost.

The truly significant questions associated with this case were simply glossed over, and the expert's vague opinion was inserted almost as an afterthought to satisfy any questions as to the ' why?' of it all.

Reading between the lines of this fluff piece, there are some very, very troubling questions. For example:

(1) How can a person, who has no knowledge of some accent, speak in perfect imitation of a native speaker of said accent?

(2) Why is there usually also an associated change in behavior?

(3) Why does the syndrome usually 'go away' after a certain time?

(4) Is foreign accent syndrome merely the visible tip of an iceberg of something that happens in the brains of many people who have brain trauma or illness, but whose symptoms are nowhere as spectacular or visible as those of foreign accent syndrome sufferers?

I'll give you the bottom line to this, because I don't have the time right now to indulge in lengthy analyses of what these questions might resolve to. And the bottom line is this:

The most pithy explanation for these phenomena involve something that will make scientists shudder: possession.

Possession in the truest sense of the word. Or maybe 'occupation'. Maybe also 'brain sharing'. And, yes, we're not talking about long-winded neuro-psycho-babble but something much more along the lines of what Spiritualists would have wound immensely familiar and comforting.

I've considered many of these things during decades of trying to make sense out of what and who we are, and what is true and what isn't. Ultimately I rejected, and still do, religio-babble and bullshit and metaphysical philosophy involving souls or stuff like that; and especially anything 'supernatural'. But I also have a measure of empirical integrity, and FAS pushes the bounds of 'scientifically accepted' explanations to the breaking point.

Here's another report that should make scientists with integrity sit up and take a much closer look. It combines virtually all the critical elements of the phenomenon, and in addition it isn't just about an 'accent' but a whole damn language!

And, no, I don't want to encourage people to think of reincarnation and possession and all the things that come with speculating outside a proper scientific framework of explanantion. The problem is that something like FAS, rare as it appears to be—for how many instances are there that undiagnosed?—rattled the foundations of the currently fashionable scientific paradigms of what 'mind' is; and, of course, it raises yet again the question of what happens to us after we die. It is nothing at all, as extinctionists would have it, or is the brain not the only 'medium', or 'substrate', if you will, in which what we know as 'thought' or 'consciousness' or whatever it is that make us what we are can take place?

Momentous questions, all glossed over glibly and quite without appreciation of their profundity in a 'news magazine' fluff piece.

Well, what do you know?

Friday, January 02, 2009

With Cops Like that, Who Needs Black Market Arms Dealers

Among the more unbelievable cockups of the ever-interesting Queensland police...

Police utility belt with gun, ammo stolen from police car

I particularly love this line from the article:

Police have asked the thief to be careful with the items, advising they "have the potential to cause injury or death".

When I stopped laughing, so I could catch my breath...