Open forum

January 29, 2010

There is clearly a demand among some visitors to ramble on about other things than the posted topic. Please move discussion of that here.


Is modern philosophy doomed?

January 25, 2010

Badiou argues that number cannot be defined by the multiform calculative uses to which numbers are put, nor is it exhausted by the various species described by number theory. Drawing on the mathematical theory of surreal numbers, he develops a unified theory of Number as a particular form of being, an infinite expanse to which our access remains limited. This understanding of Number as being harbours important philosophical truths about the structure of the world in which we live.

In Badiou’s view, only by rigorously thinking through Number can philosophy offer us some hope of breaking through the dense and apparently impenetrable capitalist fabric of numerical relations. For this will finally allow us to point to that which cannot be numbered: the possibility of an event that would deliver us from our unthinking subordination of number.

~Promotional material for a new book by prominent French philosopher Alain Badiou

Dune and Islam

January 24, 2010

I’ve only recently cottoned on to the Dune novels or rather I should say novel (only two thirds of the way through the first one). I also saw the widely panned but i thought fascinating in its own retro way Dune movie by David Lynch. I read that there’s going to be a remake. A question to readers – are the obvious references to Islam in Dune widely known and how is that seen by its fans, especially in light of today/s events. They really are quite striking – the reference to the religion of the Fremen as being simple and concrete, the worldly prophet who is also a warrior and day to day ruler, the fact that the Fremen are desert people and speak of jihad and cleansing the world, etc.

A quirky take on Avatar

January 20, 2010

This is one of the reasons I read Steve Sailer though it’s hard to agree with him on a lot of politics:

… rather than being the America-hating leftist of neocon fulminations, Cameron is a worthy successor to the greatest American science fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988).

A highly imaginative writer, Heinlein’s politics were far from consistent. (His three cult novels have three wildly different cults: Starship Troopers was the second book on the official U.S. Marine Corps reading list, while Stranger in a Strange Land was beloved by hippies, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by U. of Chicago libertarians.) Still, it’s fair to say that Heinlein was not a conventional Hollywood liberal.

Having been raised on Heinlein novels, I could always see where Cameron was coming from. His second film, 1986’s Aliens, struck me as Heinlein’s Starship Troopers done better than Heinlein himself could manage. Cameron left out the political chatter and added extra helpings of suspense and combat between giant space bugs and humans in powered armor suits

Heinlein’s thumbprints can be found all over Avatar’s pastiche of a plot. For instance, the device that launches Cameron’s scenario—one identical twin must substitute at the last minute for his brother on an interstellar voyage—is also in Heinlein’s 1956 novel Time for the Stars. Moreover, Avatar appears to borrow one of its central ideas—Pandora, a planet where the entire ecosystem is a single living network exchanging information—from the climax of Heinlein’s 1953 book for boys, Starman Jones.

Indeed, Avatar’s main plot—a human soldier teams up with a seemingly primitive but actually wise alien tribe to prevent an evil Earthling mining company from despoiling their sacred tropical homeland—an be found in Heinlein’s 1948 “young adult” story Space Cadet.

This is not to say Cameron is plagiarizing Heinlein. Rather, Heinlein’s ideas are part of the creative DNA of every artist working in hard sci-fi.

Further, Cameron is confronted with the same storytelling problem as Heinlein: they both love giant machines, but audiences don’t want to see the overdog win. Heinlein used a more convoluted variant of the Avatar plot in both Red Planet (1949) and Between Planets (1951). In these, the heroes are human settlers on Mars or Venus who enlist the admirable indigenous aliens in their fight for planetary independence from the oligarchic rulers of Earth.

The crypto-communist conspiracy to deindustrialise the world?

January 14, 2010

But the need for more research should not be an excuse for delaying much needed action now. There is already a clear case for precautionary action at an international level. The IPCC tells us that we can’t repair the effects of past behaviour on our atmosphere as quickly and as easily as we might cleanse a stream or river. It will take, for example, until the second half of the next century, until the old age of my grandson, to repair the damage to the ozone layer above the Antarctic. And some of the gases we are adding to the global heat trap will endure in the Earth’s atmosphere for just as long.

The IPCC tells us that, on present trends, the earth will warm up faster than at any time since the last ice age. Weather patterns could change so that what is now wet would become dry, and what is now dry would become wet. Rising seas could threaten the livelihood of that substantial part of the world’s population which lives on or near coasts. The character and behaviour of plants would change, some for the better, some for worse. Some species of animals and plants would migrate to different zones or disappear for ever. Forests would die or move. And deserts would advance as green fields retreated.

Many of the precautionary actions that we need to take would be sensible in any event. It is sensible to improve energy efficiency and use energy prudently; it’s sensible to develop alternative and sustainable and sensible … it’s sensible to improve energy efficiency and to develop alternative and sustainable sources of supply; it’s sensible to replant the forests which we consume; it’s sensible to re-examine industrial processes; it’s sensible to tackle the problem of waste. I understand that the latest vogue is to call them ‘no regrets’ policies. Certainly we should have none in putting them into effect.

And our uncertainties about climate change are not all in one direction. The IPCC report is very honest about the margins of error. Climate change may be less than predicted. But equally it may occur more quickly than the present computer models suggest. Should this happen it would be doubly disastrous were we to shirk the challenge now. I see the adoption of these policies as a sort of premium on insurance against fire, flood or other disaster. It may be cheaper or more cost-effective to take action now than to wait and find we have to pay much more later

~ The Iron Lady, 6 November 1990

Link via John Quiggin (yes my title was ironic)

The Tarahumara and running shoes

January 14, 2010

Here is a piece that tackles two fascinating subjects – the Tarahumara and why expensive running shoes are bad for you:

Science and sceptical runners are catching up with something the Tarahumara Indians have known for ever: your naked feet are fine on their own. According to a growing body of clinical research, those expensive running shoes you’ve been relying on may be worse than useless: they could be causing the very injuries they’re supposed to prevent.

Perhaps the best research in the field has been going on for hundreds of years in a maze of canyons in northern Mexico. There, the reclusive Tarahumara tribe routinely engage in races of 150 miles or more, the equivalent of running the London Marathon six times in the same day. Despite this extreme mileage, as I learnt during several treks into the canyons, the Tarahumara are somehow immune to the injuries that plague the rest of the running world.

Out here in the non-Tarahumara world, where we have access to the best in sports medicine, training innovations and footwear, up to 90 per cent of all marathoners are injured every year. The Tarahumara, by contrast, remain spry and healthy deep into old age. I saw numerous men and women in their seventies loping up steep, cliffside switchbacks on their way to villages 30 miles away. Back in 1994, a Tarahumara man ventured out of the canyons to compete against an elite field of runners at the Leadville Trail Ultramarathon, a 100-mile race through the Rocky Mountains. He wore homemade sandals. He was 55 years old. He won.

So how do the Tarahumara protect their legs from all that pounding? Simple – they don’t. They don’t protect and, most critically, they don’t pound. When the Tarahumara aren’t barefoot, they wear nothing more cushioned than thin, hard sandals fashioned from discarded tire treads and leather thongs. In place of artificial shock absorption, they rely on an ancient running technique that creates a naturally gentle landing. Unlike the vast majority of modern runners, who come down heavily on their foam-covered heels and roll forward off their toes, the Tarahumara land lightly on their forefeet and bend their knees, as you would if you jumped from a chair.

Javanese Islam

January 11, 2010

While this article is about Javanese Islam, the history it describes is just as applicable to Islam elsewhere in Southeast Asia including my country of birth, Malaysia. The Muslims of Southeast Asia used to be Hindus and had rich, syncretic cultural traditions before they converted to Islam primarily through trade rather than conquest. As a result, there has until recently been a strain of relatively greater tolerance and pluralism in Southeast Asian Islam. This is not to suggest that there has not been any discord between Islamic and non-Islamic groups in the region, but in the case of Indonesia and Malaysia this has been partly because religious differences track ethnic differences with the economically dominant non-Muslim Chinese copping the resentments that come with being a ‘middleman minority’.

However a lot of that is now in the past with my admittedly non-specialist impression from reading and family back in Malaysia being that Southeast Asian Islam is becoming increasingly rigidified by more recent cross-polination with its Arab variety, just as this article suggests:

Islam was a relatively recent import to this part of the world. It washed up on the western tip of present-day Indonesia in the twelfth century, took root in the fifteenth, and became dominant across much of the archipelago as late as the seventeenth. For the most part, it arrived through trade rather than conquest, by Indian dhow rather than Arab charger. It was preceded by more than a millennium of Hinduism and Buddhism, whose achievements included Borobudur, a massive ninth-century Buddhist stupa, and Majapahit, a Hindu-Buddhist empire whose influence stretched to present-day Cambodia. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote in comparing Indonesia to Morocco: “In Indonesia Islam did not construct a civilization, it appropriated one.” …

Historically, the Javanese had not confused being Muslim with being Arab. They had bent Islam to their culture rather than the other way round. In Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, V. S. Naipaul writes: “It was as if, at this far end of the world, the people of Java had taken what was most humane and liberating from the religions that had come their way, to make their own.”

They had taken the best of Islam, its simple egalitarianism, its ability to infuse drab lives with dignity, without devaluing their earlier achievements. The Javanese retained their own history and architecture, their own names, their own dress and dance and music, their own rituals at birth and marriage and death, even their own conception of the afterlife. It was these, expressed in a million subtle ways in gesture and carriage and voice, that gave their civilization such a high gloss at what remained, after all, a very low level of income.

It was these that the wave of orthodox Islam that had washed over Indonesia in the last thirty-odd years threatened to extinguish.

Artistic talent should not be a get out of jail free card

January 10, 2010

This may well be the first of Clive Hamilton’s pieces I am pretty much in unqualified agreement with:

When we project our love of an artistic work onto the artist, we cannot bear to accept the creator of something beautiful, inspiring or meaningful could not embody those qualities.

We want to believe the qualities we see in the creations must be direct emanations from the soul of the creator, and the more so as the culture becomes higher. Painters, composers and poets seem to be granted the greatest moral latitude …

Yet artists, all too human, are prone to interpret society’s leniency as a licence to do as they please, the more so as their renown grows.

Not all taboos are there to be broken. Perversion is not subversion (to borrow from Slavoj Zizek) and, painful as it may be, we must allow our heroes to fall when they cross into the forbidden zone. Grey areas it may have, but that zone always includes the sexual abuse of children.

Interview with a ‘high functioning’ schizophrenic

January 7, 2010

From a fascinating interview with law professor and McArthur grant winner Elyn Saks who has to manage her schizophrenia along with her daily responsibilities:

COOK: Can you sum up the subjective experience of breakdown, so that people might understand what a person with schizophrenia is going through?

SAKS: Subjectively, the best comparison I can make is to a waking nightmare. You have all the terror and confusion and the bizarre images and thoughts that you have in a nightmare. And then with the nightmare you sit bolt upright in bed in utter terror. Only with a nightmare you then wake up, while with psychosis you can’t just open your eyes and make it all go away.

That’s subjectively. Objectively, I have delusions (irrational beliefs like that I have killed hundreds of thousands of people with my thoughts); infrequent hallucinations (like watching a huge spider walk up my wall); and disorganized and confused thinking (e.g. what are called “loose associations,” like “my copies of the cases have been infiltrated. We have to case the joint. I don’t believe in joints but they do hold your body together”). These are called “positive symptoms” of schizophrenia. Except for my first two years at Oxford, I have been spared the so-called “negative symptoms”: apathy, withdrawal, inability to work or make friends.

Terrorism and high IQ underachievers

January 6, 2010

Some interesting thoughts from Half Sigma on the counterintuitive idea that terrrorists have higher than average IQ. Also related, why so many terrorists have engineering degrees:

A paper (PDF) released this summer by two sociologists, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, adds empirical evidence to this observation. The pair looked at more than 400 radical Islamic terrorists from more than 30 nations in the Middle East and Africa born mostly between the 1950s and 1970s. Earlier studies had shown that terrorists tend to be wealthier and better-educated than their countrymen, but Gambetta and Hertog found that engineers, in particular, were three to four times more likely to become violent terrorists than their peers in finance, medicine or the sciences. The next most radicalizing graduate degree, in a distant second, was Islamic Studies.

So what’s with all the terrorist-engineers? The simple explanation is that engineering happens to be an especially popular field of study in the countries that produce violent radicals. But Gambetta and Hertog corrected for national enrollment numbers in engineering programs and got similar results. Even among Islamic terrorists born or raised in the West, nearly 60 percent had engineering backgrounds.

Another possible explanation would be that engineers possess technical skills and architectural know-how that makes them attractive recruits for terrorist organizations. But the recent study found that engineers are just as likely to hold leadership roles within these organizations as they are to be working hands-on with explosives …

Gambetta and Hertog propose that a lack of appropriate jobs in their home countries may have radicalized some engineers in Arab countries. The graduates they studied came of age at a time when a degree from a competitive technical program was supposed to provide a guarantee of high-status employment. But the promises of modernization and development were often stymied by repression and corruption, and many young engineers in the 1980s were left jobless and frustrated. One exception was Saudi Arabia, where engineers had little trouble finding work in an ever-expanding economy. As it happens, Saudi Arabia is also the only Arab state where the study found that engineers are not disproportionately represented in the radical movement