Saturday, March 16, 2013

message for your deaf ears

the Arecibo message

blah blah blah

There is of course the satisfaction of composing florid prose. And cryptic terseness. Vanity? Not in the long run. Assertiveness: that's why I write these little essays.

These blog posts are a chance for me to express my point of view in whole, without interruption, and in detail; something I otherwise rarely have the opportunity to do. This is because no one gives a shit about my personal opinions and views.

I get well enough professional respect to keep my chin in the air, and am sufficiently feared at home to maintain my testosterone levels; so I'm comfortable with the general lack of interest in what's going in my personal head. But sometimes I'm curious about what's going on in there. And often I'm not really sure until I see it written down.

Why broadcast my views? Because publishing imposes discipline. It encourages me to consider a hypothetical reader while I am writing a post, and provides a satisfying sense of closure when I click the button when I'm done.

lorem ipsum vanitas

I'd like to correct any misconceptions about self-importance. I have statistically certain knowledge of exactly how many people find these posts compelling and relevant. Nobody. It's a one-way communication into the abyss. Like broadcasting radio messages into space. The situation is stable. I check the statistics daily. In this way, I keep my self-importance in check.

No, dear reader, I do not consider you a "nobody," or an "alien," or in any way like an "abyss". In fact, I am most likely related or married to you, in which case, I love you. Otherwise, I probably know you to some degree personally, in which case, chances are we are friendly. Thank you for reading this. You are kind, and I would be pleased if you left a comment and more pleased if you actually discussed any of the thoughts in these posts with me. If you have come to this blog by accident, then I humbly hope you will find something amusing enough to warrant your time. If you already dislike me and have come to this blog in search of justification, then i) I'm flattered, and ii) you lose, dickhead. Ha!

wankity wankity wank

I enjoy the craft of composition, the pleasure of creation, of forming an argument, of working with ideas. I like the practical reward of having coherent thoughts at hand when the (rare) occasion arises.

However, I have noticed two potential downsides. Since I started to blog, my personal email account has been neglected. Friends can wait days for a reply. I prefer to believe this is a symptom of a general creeping fatigue of the demands of constant connectedness, as well as because time blogging leaves less time for other leisure activities; but there is also an element of cowardly vice. Measured by word count, I seem to prefer unanswerable pronouncements over personal correspondance. But the way I like to think about it is, I'm sparing my friends and family the ordeal of appearing interested. I've seen it. It's not pretty. I'm performing an act of mercy.

The other potential drawback is being seduced by words. By this I mean falling into the world of semantics and logic. Language is limiting. It's wrong to understand the world as something that makes sense. While I use language to reveal my thoughts, I should not deceive myself that all thoughts can be expressed in language. I should not devalue the inarticulate. Because I will become an asshole.

happy ending

So why bother? Why to write down thoughts no one cares about for a blog no one reads? Why anything? Because it gives me joy. It makes at least as much sense as anything else I do.

If you prefer less introspective fare, my other blog is for the more practical and professionally-minded reader

Friday, March 15, 2013

anachrony in the EU

father knows best

time capsules

An anachronism is a thing that is out of place in time.

In Montreal, Pierre's car is referred to as le char à Pierre; in Paris, it's la voiture de Pierre. The similarity of the Quebecois char to the English car is accidental, it's not an anglicism. In fact, it's an exaptation of the 17th century French word for horse-drawn carriage (a kind of chariot). French as spoken in Quebec contains many such traces of the language spoke in the 17th Century, when French colonies were established on the east coast of what is now Canada. 

When the colonists left home, they took their language with them, and in the new world, the language evolved in its own direction. In smaller, isolated populations, evolution proceeds at a slower pace; hence the survival of 17th century words in Montreal now extinct in Paris. 

Do you remember that kid in middle school who spoke a different language at home? Did you ever have the fortune to eat at their house? Was the food weird and exotic? Did you finally surrender to the  gesticulations of the mother and accept second and third helpings? Did you fail to notice the Father and your friend were not doing the same? Were you surprised and dismayed when the next, main dish came to the table? Did they give you some wine? Did your friend seem to operate under different rules than most of the other kids, rules from the "old country," covering things like curfews, and drinking, and dating?

thousands of miles away and 30 years behind

When immigrants come to a new country, they bring with them a snapshot of their home culture, including moral values. In the relative isolation of their new home, the moral values tend to evolve more slowly than they do back home. Children of immigrants lead a time shifted life. Remember that immigrant girl who wasn't allowed to date? Her cousin in the old country was already on the pill. 

In the age of the internet, these effects are less strong, but I contend they remain strongly relevant. Day to day physical proximity and direct face to face interaction within a community is much more influential to our beliefs and behavior than online news, Skype, or any other mediated communication. I am witness to it.

expats are immigrants

My children have attended schools in 4 countries over the last 6 years. We now live in the Netherlands. My work is nearly exclusively in English, so I don't speak Dutch very well. My children often have to explain the school bulletins to me. Does my family then live in a time bubble?

In several ways, our family is an anachronism. In the Netherlands, 60% of women work, and part-time (flexi) work seems to be becoming the norm. The average family size is 2.2. In our immigrant household however, I am the sole breadwinner. Monday to Friday, I leave the home at 7:30 and return tired at 7:00, when I am served an excellent home cooked dinner. I do almost no housework. My partner, to whom I am married, the first marriage for both of us, is a full time mother of 4 children. It could be a situation from a 1950s TV show. Only the wife in this comedy is much less complacent (more pissed off) about her part.

My children complain about the strict limits on television and computer use we enforce. They claim we are the only parents in the school with such arbitrary rules. 1. I don't believe them. 2. I'm not able to socialize enough in the community to sense how far from the norm we really are.

If you prefer less introspective fare, my other blog is for the more practical and professionally-minded reader

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

the unbearable lightness of dementia

Nothingness haunts being. 
Sartre claims we yearn for a solidity that always evades us, that however much we are established as, say, a Respected Judge, Competitive Businessman, Resolute Defender, Caring Father, Creative Artist, or even Innovative Pornographer, there is a part of us that knows it is all a pretense  We long for the comfort of knowing that we simply are whatever we are, to be one indisputable thing, in the way, say, that a rock is unchangingly a rock. We long for the solidity of objects. We desire to inhabit our being confidently and effortlessly (the French say "to feel good in one's skin), but our ease is ever eroded by the knowledge that we built our identity ourselves, on a foundation of nothingness. This is existential angst. Our lives are spent fleeing from this reality.

Do you know what I'm talking about? Do you ever feel exhausted by the effort of simply maintaining your own identity in the society of others? Does the foundational flimsiness of your identity prick your confidence from time to time?

Maybe this is what it is like to experience dementia. As our memory and cognitive agility declines, we lose our ability to maintain a solid façade of identity. Like cold winter wind through a broken attic window, Nothingness creeps in, . Life, once solid-seeming, begins to lose its substance. Anxiety, which we had to this point always managed to suppress and conceal from ourselves, now begins to overwhelm. It's the same anxiousness, fear, and nausea hiding in all of us, only unleashed.

Maybe this is why people with dementia sometimes retreat into the well established patterns of their youth. Perhaps, searching for solidity, they lean on whatever ways of thinking are still most intact. Neural pathways established earlier and reinforced over a lifetime are the strongest.

Maybe this is why doll therapy is sometimes effective for people with Alzheimer's disease, because it taps into primal drives to care and protect children. Perhaps these basic drives are solid-feeling and therefore comforting.

If you prefer less introspective fare, my other blog is for the more practical and professionally-minded reader

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

taxonomy of humanity

Imagination and Fact

There are fiction people and non-fiction people. Non-fiction people prefer their information to be actionable, with clear relevance and direct application. Fiction people prefer their information to be inspirational, evoking new images and experiences. Although I have lately bought more of the second than the first, I am solidly a fiction man. I have had lengthy spells of nearly exclusive non-fiction consumption, in the form of news magazines (e.g., The Economist), history (e.g., Colour), biography (e.g., God's Call Girl) , and analysis (e.g., The Tell-Tale Brain); but I have found that fiction (e.g., Time's Arrow), gives me much more insight into the world around me. Non-fiction gives you a bicycle pump, fiction gives you a map.

Objects and Experiences

There are Art people and Travel people. Art people spend their money on beautiful and inspiring objects. Travel people spend their money on experiences. Art people attend to their day-to-day environment, striving to make each moment unique and meaningful. Travel people seek new perspectives on life, viewing each situation from the standpoint of another. Art people live in the moment, which they seek to transcend; Travel people live in their memories, and in their anticipation of their next adventure. I admire the Art people, but history suggests I am a Travel person.

Leavers and Stayers

There are stay-to-the-end-of-the-party people and don't-to-be-the-last-to-leave-the-party people. I'm a stayer. I do try to be sensitive to the desires of our host, but I don't like to stop when I am enjoying myself. If things are getting crazy, well, to my thinking, the whole point of a party is a change from the normal. Crazy is not the time to leave. It's like leaving the opera before the fat lady sings. I make an exception in cases of impending violence or destruction. No, Karaoke is not covered by these exceptions.

Hard and Candy Asses

There are end-of-the-world people and not-end-of-the-world people. In my experience, most people are not-end-of-the-world people, meaning they do not want to be around when the comet extinguishes all life, or global warming fries the last mammal. Me, I reckon human life will eventually come to an end, and I think humans are the only ones who care much when it comes to an end, and after human life comes to an end none of human history will be of any significance at all, so wouldn't it be a privilege to know how it ended? You may not like how it ended, but you would have the satisfaction of knowing with certainty. I'm not a nihilist. I believe life is meaningful; but only to the living. I have no desire to pro-actively end the world during my existence, just as I have no desire to end a party simply because I must go home. I'm a finisher. I prefer to see the end. Not-end-of-the-world people have their heads in the sand.

If you prefer less introspective fare, my other blog is for the more practical and professionally-minded reader

logical politics

The Prophet Daniel (Michelangelo)


After listening carefully to the comments, and considering the situation and the personalities, and the motivating forces and preceding events, I have decided everyone is wrong. Where it is not plain wrong, your understanding of the facts is superficial, and your criticism more political than logical. I have therefore decided not to change my perspective, conduct, or approach. I have decided to push back.

I would have expected to relish this situation. Greatness needs fortune in order to rise, like the acorn needs fertile soil. The opportunity to stand firm in the light of truth against the storm of unenlightened opinion is a gift. Righteous indignation is a rare and invigorating joy. 


Then there is hubris. Certainty blinds. Moving tongue, deaf ears. Established experts are often the last ones to notice the changes that make their knowledge obsolete. Perhaps you are all genuinely trying to bring my attention to something new, so new that we have not yet found words for it, and because it cannot be defined, I deny its existence, when I should instead join your efforts to describe it.

What if I am right? You will not thank me. You will remember only the bitterness of being wrong, and you will think of that bitterness when you think of me. Our differences center on certain shared interests, but we also have our own held personal interests which take priority over these other interests, and, no doubt, all of our personal goals include not feeling wrong, or bitter, or an asshole. 

So in the end, looking at the bigger picture, why don't I just go with the flow? As important as we all hold our shared goals to be, let's face it: we aren't talking about rescuing starving refugees from advancing troops on the wrong side of the desert border. We aren't disputing whether the convulsing open heart surgery patient will be saved or killed by tightening of the clamp. Egos are at stake. So why not keep my gunpowder dry and live to fight another day?

Practical Realities

What fight? What day? What's the profit if I sacrifice my integrity? The stand I take now determines the nature of the challenges I will face in the future. If I give up ground, I condemn myself to fight similar battles in the light of a precedent that weakens my position and gives strength to my opponents. "The man who trims himself to suit everyone soon whittles himself away".


Of course, we all succeed or fail together. It is small satisfaction to the man on the sinking ship to have seen the iceberg. The situation calls for influence and persuasion. We must be led gently into the light so that we are able to see the truth for yourself. Because we are too easily distracted by the arguments, and lose sight of the what is really important. Logic often leads away from the truth.

If you prefer less introspective fare, my other blog is for the more practical and professionally-minded reader

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

bud lite

beer me!

A student asked the Buddha, "Teacher, many holy men profess to show the way to enlightenment. How am I to distinguish those who offer wisdom from the charlatans?"

The Buddha answered, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” Which is why I am an atheist.

Buddhists have described their practice as the Science of Life, and this agrees with my own preferred way of looking at things. I admire Buddhism, but they lose me with the mystical stuff. Call my way of looking at things, Bud Lite.

The approach to life that most agrees with my own reason and common sense is Epicureanism. Here is a sample of the teachings of Epicurus:
  • Truth can only be known by the evidence of the senses. 
  • Pleasure is the chief good of life. 
  • A tranquil state of mind is the chief pleasure. 
  • Learning is valuable only in that it rids us of fear and teaches us to pursue pleasure intelligently. 
  • Virtue is valuable only so far as it leads us to happiness. 
  • It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly (agreeing "neither to harm nor be harmed"), and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life. 
  • Fashion, culture and civilization create unnecessary needs. Their pursuit is more likely to disturb than reward. Simple pleasures are more lasting and satisfying. 
  • Who you share a meal with is more important than what you eat.

The History of Philosopy without any Gaps podcast has 3 commendable podcasts on the Principles, Ethics, and Theory of Epicurean Philosophy.

If you prefer less introspective fare, my other blog is for the more practical and professionally-minded reader

Monday, March 4, 2013

foregone conclusion

1 Did you click? Which link? Your choices disclose your fate.

2 You saw that coming.

Religion and Science converge on an unacceptable answer

Fatalism seems to have past its use-by date. The idea that the future is predetermined is something you expect from ignorant zealots, not civilized thinkers. However, if you take science seriously then eventually you come to the conclusion that the universe is controlled by inescapable forces. Science and Religion seem to converge on Determinism.
determinism [dɪˈtɜːmɪˌnɪzəm] n

1. (Philosophy) the philosophical doctrine that all events including human actions and choices are fully determined by preceding events and states of affairs, and so that freedom of choice is illusory. Also called necessitarianism. Compare free will [1b]
2. (Philosophy) the scientific doctrine that all occurrences in nature take place in accordance with natural laws
3. (Physics / General Physics) the principle in classical mechanics that the values of dynamic variables of a system and of the forces acting on the system at a given time, completely determine the values of the variables at any later time
determinist n & adj
deterministic adj
Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003

The debate over Determinism v. Free Will has been ongoing since antiquity. But findings in the fast-moving fields of neuroscience and behavioral psychology tend to support the deterministic theory. Emotions, desires, decisions, even our aesthetic senses can all be traced back to physical structures and events in the brain. There has been notable dissent from scientific and philosophic luminaries such as Epicurus, drawing on principles such as atomic swerve, and Karl Popper, drawing on Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle; but on the whole, science is on track to definitively demonstrating the reality of Determinism. It seems inevitable. We should resign ourselves to the fact that physical, psychological, and spiritual reality manifests itself according to inexorable principles of cause and effect.

So what is a right-thinking upstanding member of the congregation supposed to do about it? Calvinist members of the Christian Dutch Reform Church believed in unconditional predestination to salvation, meaning that that they were already destined to land in either heaven or hell and nothing they did could change it. This was an unpleasant fact that Calvinists had to come to terms with, and I like how they did it. Their response was to take the view of highly engaged spectator to life. Although they couldn't change their final destination, they could watch their own actions carefully for evidence of where it would be. This stance seems like a sensible response to the situation, and not entirely depressing. It's like watching a long football match (what you might call Mancunian Mindfulness1).

A silly question

Although the Calvinists offer a practical response to the problem of determinism, they don't really resolve the issue. Determinism is a hard answer to accept. It doesn't feel correct. If determinism is the answer to the question of Free Will, then perhaps we should ask what the question means in the first place?

Douglas Adams can pick up where Calvin left off. In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the earth is revealed to be a supercomputer designed to calculate the meaning of the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Let's say reality does operate according to unswerving principles of cause and effect. Say we can understand these rules completely, in the form of something like an algorithm. Say we know the starting values of every variable in the algorithm. Can we predict the future?

In principle, yes, we could predict the future. But practically, we'd need to actually perform the calculations. A chalkboard won't do; we'd find we had fallen behind the future we were trying to predict even before the first squeak of chalk on slate. To run the calculations, we'd need an amazing complicated calculation machine, the ultimate reality engine.

To successfully predict the future, the reality engine would need to run faster than Reality itself. But I don't think this is possible. It's my (Douglas Adamsian) view that the most efficient way to calculate the future is Reality. It's impossible to calculate the future faster than it occurs in reality.

Which leads to a pair of questions I've been puzzling :
Does it make any sense to say something is pre-determined if no entity (man or machine or hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional being) knows or can know the outcome?
I think the answer is no; because if nobody knows the outcome, it's not pre-determined. So,
If something is not pre-determined, can it be deterministic? 
Again, I think the answer is no. Any other solutions I have found are unacceptably convoluted.

Religion and Science are both wrong and I am right

In summary, here is my contribution to the metaphysical debate over Free Will:
  • Physical, psychological, and spiritual reality does manifest itself according to inexorable principles of cause and effect. 
  • It's impossible to calculate the future faster than it occurs in Reality. 
  • Therefore no entity (man, machine, or hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional being) can predict the future; 
  • Therefore, determinism is not a possibility.
And what about Free Will? That, of course, is up to you.2

If you prefer less introspective fare, my other blog is for the more practical and professionally-minded reader