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Postcard from South Africa

Dear All,
I’ll probably be home before you get this, but anywho. Having a great time in South Africa — still can’t believe I’m actually here! Weather is more than fine, even though it’s supposed to be winter. Temperatures are hot but humidity is low, so I’m dry as a bone for once (hehe!).
Benitha is a wonderful host. Amongst other things, she’s been introducing me to various South African culinary delights: pap and wors, koeksisters, and grape flavour Fanta (my new fave soft drink).
It’s so amazing to actually be in her company, after all this time. I wish it wasn’t flying by so fast. We’ve got the metric ball and a trip to Kruger to come, but still. Leaving will be hard…
Running out of space. Better wind this up. Best regards to all,

Gone fishin’

Tomorrow morning I shall leave these shores, this emerald isle, to spend a week (well, six nights) in exotic, wintery South Africa.

As you might imagine, I’m more than a little excited. The gravity of the situation only began to affect me over the weekend. The sooner I get going now, the better.

I’ve spent most of the day so far packing and procuring some last-minute essentials. Right now I am 99% packed and ready to go. I like to get things done early. (There is still one thing that I’m looking for, but I might be able to pick it up at the airport. If not, it’s not the end of the world; I’ll think of something.)

As far as this weblog goes, I may have the opportunity to post a note or two here while I’m gone, but don’t hold your breath. In any case, I shall return on the 27th to enthrall you once again.
In the meantime, I didn’t want to leave you, kind reader, without anything to chew on for the next seven days. So, without further ado I present to you, out of the kindness of my heart, a pair of boobies.

And hey, while I’m at it, here’s some tits, some melons, and bazookas too.

On Making Connections

(or, _Beyond The Chinese Room_)
Paul Ford has recently posted an introduction to The Chinese Room Thought Experiment, John Searle‘s infamous refutation of the possibility of truly artificial intelligence.
(As a matter of interest, here is an essay I wrote almost two years ago on the Chinese Room experiment and its subsequent detractors; it’s admittedly badly-argued, and the prose could do with some work, but it’s something.)
Searle’s experiment was my introduction to the intriguing world of artificial intelligence, and even prompted me to consider postgraduate study in the field of cognitive science. That is, before I realised how much I hate maths. Still, it would have been nice to play with the robots (I’m convinced that the ‘classified’ status of UCD’s cognitive science department is just to cover up their real mission: building a machine to win at Robot Wars).
Yet the Chinese Room isn’t just about disproving behaviouristic arguments in support of A.I. (see: the Turing Test). The thought experiment itself is based upon the distinction between semiotics and semantics, insofar as semantic meaning is attributed to semiotic symbols _after the fact_ — there is NO _a priori_ connection between a sign or a symbol (a word, for the most obvious example) and whatever meaning it conveys (i.e. the definition of the word, in a given context).
To put it in the simplest terms, words mean _what we say they mean_.
It’s funny how the concept of artificial intelligence — something we generally associate with a future of robots, talking computers and other staples of science fiction — connects so seamlessly with present-day linguistics, the philosophy of language, and in turn mankind’s apparently innate capacity for intercommunication. It’s also funny how Paul Ford’s quoting of Searle connects so coincidentally with a string of weblog entries by Matt Webb on the subject of words and their meaning (This extract from an interview with Samuel Delany, plus a quote from Christopher Ricks’ The State of the Language).
From this point on one could reference any relevant theorist from Chomsky to Derrida, but I’m not about to start that now. Rather, it’s the potential for such connections to be made that’s of primary interest to me at this time. It’s interesting how it almost mirrors the hidden patterns of our own cognitive processes; the ‘stream of consciousness’ that James Joyce attempted to textualise with Ulysses.
Speaking of great books, Haruki Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance also deals with the making of connections; how the strings of thoughts, of events, of relationships sometimes weave together so tightly that you’d never think of them as anything but strands of the same rope. In Murakami’s novel, it’s the Sheep Man who serves as a connecting node of sorts (or knot, if you’d rather stick with the rope analogy) for his unnamed protagonist’s experiences. But isn’t the Sheep Man really a projection of the protagonist’s own consciousness? Like the Chinese Room might be seen as Searle’s simplified abstraction of mechanical cognition? (I guess you would have to had read the book to answer that, but it’s certainly some food for thought.)
Discussing this topic brings to mind something I’ve been meaning to mention here for a while: namely, the startlingly coindicental thematic/tonal connections between the Dictionary.com Word of the Day links at the foot of each individual entry in this weblog, and the very entries with which they are associated.
Here are a handful of recent instances:

The connections may be tenuous at best, but surely one cannot doubt that Dictionary.com’s chosen words for these given days have been eerily appropriate…

The Antichrist of North Carolina?

She may not be the Antichrist of North Carolina, but there seems little doubt to me that Barbara Ehenreich loves to bait those right-wing Christians (c/o (woolgathering)):
>I was getting into my new role as North Carolina’s premier amateur philosopher and religious studies scholar, and hoping for some in-depth discussion of my own “anti-Christian bigotry,” as one of the state legislators put it, no doubt referring to my description, in “Nickel and Dimed” of Jesus as a “wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist.” On the “vagrant” part, there can be no debate, and, although “guzzling” may be a bit overstated, Jesus was sufficiently associated with wine (“I am the true vine,” etc.) to be confused with the Greek wine god Dionysius in the Hellenistic world – a subject I have yearned to expound on for years.
Ms. Ehenreich sure has a nice broadsheet elaboration to qualify her distinctly tabloid language, doesn’t she? She knew exactly what kind of reaction such an inflammatory statement as “wine-guzzling vagrant” would have; if she didn’t, she wouldn’t have chosen those particular words now, would she?
This is nothing more than controversy for controversy’s sake — it only serves to undermine whatever arguments she has to make, however valid. And this critique is coming from someone who isn’t even offended, just disheartened.
Playing semantic games with the religious right might be fun, but on this scale, it’s not very smart. Ehenreich should know better.

The Atom and the Damage Done

The Guardian reports that scientists have finally started to piece together exactly what happened when the United States detonated an atomic bomb in the skies over Hiroshima on the 6th of August, 1945; a truly horrific event in which 140,000 Japanese people lost their lives. (Plastic has an entry with a selection of links to mark the 58th anniversary; c/o Antipixel.)
Just think about that number for a minute. One hundred and forty thousand.
Both the Hiroshima explosion, and the subsequent attack on Nagasaki three days later that left 80,000 dead, will always be remembered as a dark time for modern civilisation. One cannot even imagine how it must have felt to be there; to have experienced the devastation first hand; to have fallen victim to the firestorm and the radiation. Quick as a flash.
But common history tends to ignore what the Japanese had been through just a few months before, when Tokyo was firebombed by the United States using a new type of incendiary munition, designed for maximum impact. Japan may have been on the side of the ‘bad guys’, their own military may have been guilty of countless human rights abuses, but nobody deserved what the US government and military dealt out to the ordinary citizens of Japan that year.
Jonathon Delacour has posted an absolute must-read in an excellent, well-researched piece on the legacy of Vannevar Bush, the computing pioneer who foresaw the development of hypertext, and who also happened to be the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, a branch of the US government responsible for coordinating work on America’s most advanced and deadly weapons during the Second World War: among them, the atomic bomb, and napalm.
The horrors of napalm didn’t quite worm their way into the collective consciousness of the west until the war in Vietnam some twenty-odd years later. For the people of Tokyo in March of 1945, however, they were all too real.
Delacour’s article is an enlighetning, in-depth look into the events and decisions that lead up to the 1945 bombing raids. It also acts as a chilling reminder of just how self-destructive, of just how _wrong_ we fallible mortals can be, and of how little we have learned from our past indiscretions; 58 years later, and the United States military is _still_ employing napalm-like munitions, despite a United Nations ban on the use of napalm in combat since 1980. (Surprise surprise, the US declined to ratify the convention.)

On Flash Mobs

My fair city witnessed its first _flash mob_ on Saturday evening. A large crowd of people filed into Clarks shoe store on O’Connell Street and chanted _’We like cheese!’_ in unison before dispersing in a matter of moments. Queue surprise and bemusement on the faces of innocent bystanders, mutterings along the lines of “those crazy kids with their wacky stunts”, et cetera, et cetera.
Thing is, though, it wasn’t much of a surprise. The mainstream media has had reports of flash mobs planned throughout Europe since last week. In fact, it seems that it’s taken only ten days — since The Guardian (probably) first reported on the phenomenon on this side of the Atlantic — for an ambitious, exciting example of the power of modern mass communication to become a tired cliché.
Without the media hype, the first flash mobs earlier this summer where incredible incidences of improvised street theatre, bringing people together for no reason other than the possibility. But now, how long will it be before someone starts printing ‘Flash Mobber’ t-shirts, or organising flash pub crawls?
It was a good idea while it lasted but like all memes, it’s already dead, a victim of its own infectiousness.
And besides, no one invited me.

Friday Five #57

*1. What’s the last place you traveled to, outside your own home state/country?*
I haven’t been out of the country since I went to Canada in the spring of 2002. That might sound like a long time to you, but I’m not the kind of person who needs to have a foreign holiday within a certain timeframe every year like clockwork. Besides the fact that I can’t afford it most of the time, I travel because I _want_ to, not because I feel obligated to.
*2. What’s the most bizarre/unusual thing that’s ever happened to you while traveling?*
If I were more well-travelled, I might have some stories to tell. But alas, I’m not, so I don’t. Sorry to disappoint you. In my travels so far I have yet to experience anything remotely bizarre or unusual. (Of course one could make the argument that anything foreign counts as unusual, but that doesn’t hold water for me, frankly.)
*3. If you could take off to anywhere, money and time being no object, where would you go?*
That’s easy. I’d swing by Johannesburg to pick up Benitha and head east, far east, to explore Japan. Spend a month, maybe two, traversing the islands, immersing ourselves in the culture, drinking in the sights and sounds.
*4. Do you prefer traveling by plane, train or car?*
It depends. If I had to pick, I would say that I prefer travelling by train. Yet every situation is different, so don’t take this as a universal declaration.
Planes are fast, and necessary for most international travel, but they’re expensive, and uncomfortable. They’re far too cramped, and the air is bad. Even after a short flight, I usually feel out of sorts. (Although the plane might not be to blame for this; I could just be experiencing the symptoms of soul-delay.)
Cars are good, but a good journey by car — or _road trip_, in the vernacular — is conditional on three main factors:

  1. Provisions: snacks and drinks, places en-route to stop for food, bladder relief, etc.
  2. Music: the car must have a working stereo, and everyone must get an opportunity to play something; this should be agreed upon beforehand (see #3).
  3. You and your fellow traveller(s) must get on really well, since arguments in such an enclosed environment are not conducive to an enjoyable experience. Any disagreements should be worked out prior to undertaking the journey, for everyone’s sake.

Travelling by train, as long as you’re not commuting, is often a pleasure, especially in Europe and — if you’re willing to put up with some delays — North America. (One rail journey in particular that I cannot wait to make is that from Los Angeles to San Francisco; I hear the views are literally breathtaking.) Most journeys by train are undoubtedly more enjoyable than their equivalents by road: a more relaxed atmosphere coupled with better scenery makes for a tastier recipe. And besides, there’s a certain romanticism about rail travel that has yet to die, something that neither the car nor the plane have been able to take away from it.
*5. What’s the next place on your list to visit?*
In less than 11 days from now, I’ll leave here to spend a week in South Africa, to see the sights and spend some quality time with Benitha. I’m like a giddy schoolgirl, I’m so excited! I haven’t felt like this for a while. It’s a good feeling.

God, Religion and Bad Faith

There’s an excellent, thought-provoking post from Tom Coates over at plasticbag.org regarding issues of the religious kind, sparked by the recent Vatican proclamations condemining the ‘sin’ of homosexuality.
(Before I go on, I suggest that you read what he has written in its entirety, plus his replies to various comments on the piece, before you continue here.)
Coates begins initially by declaring himself as an atheist, and expresses his frustration in having a view on the world that’s perfectly reasonable (I myself cannot understand how people can put so much into blind faith) and yet being unable to comprehend how others would refuse to accept it. Further on, however, he admits that he’s gradually coming to the conclusion that he has no problem with religion if other people derive value from it, and the experience feels real to them (and, of course, _as long as religious reasoning is kept completely separate from policy decisions, logic and the like_).
Or rather, he would like to think this way, but can’t really bring himself to believe in it. This is exactly where I find difficulties in my own position (or non-position, as it were). It’s fine and dandy and politically correct to say “believe what you want, as long as you keep it to yourself” — seems to tie up all those fiddly little loose ends, doesn’t it? — but does anyone really think this is the most desirable state of affairs? All this gives us is tolerance, but mere tolerance doesn’t cut it anymore. Tolerance eases the symptoms, but it doesn’t cure the disease. Tolerance makes excuses for the inexcusable (see: dogma). Tolerance is happy smiles on the outside, but dirty looks underneath. And that just isn’t good enough. We — _all of us_ — should be striving not for mere tolerance, but for _mutual understanding_.
Coates can’t really bring himself to believe in it, because he has no reason to. Because the Catholic Church hierarchy — that ever-reliable bastion of stunted religious dogmatism — has seen fit to declare that he suffers from a ‘depravity’, that he undertakes ‘grave sins’, that he is ‘intrinsically disordered’. And all because he happens to be gay.
As one can tell from his post, he takes it personally — and why shouldn’t he? The Catholic Church is, after all, making a personal affront against his character, against his moral being. (If he were the litigious sort, he’d have grounds to sue them for defamation.) And it must be said, I take it personally too. Because this isn’t about words or abstracts or concepts. This is about real people. Real people with real lives. Real people who cannot help but be who and what they are.
Two of my best friends are gay. Truth be told, the label rarely occurs to me; only when others make it an issue. They’re my friends first and foremost. They’re not my ‘gay friends’, or even my ‘friends who happen to be gay’. They’re just my friends. They are who they are. And they’re good people. Two of the smartest, balanced, morally upright people I know actually. And I’m proud of them, not because they’re gay, but because they’ve got guts, the guts to be who they are in a world that refuses to accept reality. And you know what? When the Pope comes out and says that my friends are evil, it hurts. The Pope doesn’t know my friends — he doesn’t even know they exist! — so what right does he have to make any judgments about them? What did my friends ever do to him? And if they’re automatically evil, just because he says so, then what makes me so fucking good? Why should I give a fuck about anything anymore?!? I don’t know how it makes my friends feel, but I know it really gets under my skin.

[W]hile I’d like to say that it’s just Catholicism that’s seriously pissing me off, it’s not really Catholicism at all – it’s any approach to anything that would put more credence in statements (not even arguments) written thousands of years ago than in the accreted wisdom of hundreds of years that’s at our disposal now.

There’s no point in looking for any understanding in the Vatican; that’s the nature of dogma. Look at this this way: if your own sexuality supposedly automatically influences the sexuality of your offspring (since, according to the Vatican, we should “avoid exposing young people to erroneous ideas about sexuality and marriage that would deprive them of their necessary defences and contribute to the spread of the phenomenon”) then explain how most, if not all, gay people have straight parents. If you can do that, then you can turn lead into gold.
While keeping to the theme of understanding, let’s loop back to that declaration of atheism. From my own personal experiences in studying philosophy at university, it did take some time before I felt comfortable enough to form my own ideas, to see the world around me for myself, and not merely through the eyes of others as most people do, whether wittingly or not. And all throughout this time (a very formative time for me) I hopped from one position to another, depending on what new, exciting ideas I was introduced to. Anything could trigger it: a particularly interesting lecture or reading assignment, a heated tutorial discussion, or even just something overheard on the bus home.
I remember mentioning to one or two of my professors in the philosophy department during my final months at university that whilst at first I didn’t understand much, and at times didn’t even see the point of it all, I eventually (and almost unnoticeably) broke through to a kind of clarity in my thoughts, in the way I interpreted the world; everything came together.
But I digress. What I was trying to say was that at different times, I’ve labelled myself. As an atheist, or an agnostic, or a humanist, and so on. But none of them really fit me, because they each come with their own set of rules, and if there’s one thing that I’ve learned from my three years of academic philosophy, it’s that rules are made to be broken.
I have reasoned ideas and beliefs about the world, I can stick my ground and argue for what I believe in, but I’m equally open to challenges, and flexible enough to change my viewpoints should I be proven incorrect. Yet despite this flexibility, I adhere to an objective moral code that should be irrefutible (and yes, there is and _should be_ such a thing as objective morality: murder, for instance, is reprehensible by any standards). Does all of this qualify me for a place in the ranks of [insert belief system here]? It doesn’t matter, whether yes or no. Because, in the immortal words of Popeye, _I yam what I yam_.
So why did I label myself in the first place? What compelled me to try to slot myself into a particular position? What is it that lead Coates to begin his article with those three words: “I’m an atheist”?
The more I read of Coates’ post and of the subsequent comments, and the more I think about all the issues involved, one question keeps coming to mind: why does anyone _have_ to _be_ anything, other than what we are? Why can’t I just leave that box on the form ‘undeclared’? Why should we have to assert ourselves — assert our identities — within any kind of uniform structure, just because others would prefer it that way? Why does participation in society seem to necessitate affiliation with a religious creed? Coates even explains in his piece that Christianity in its formative stages was just one of many cults and sects throughout the Middle East, chosen as a binding agent (a political tool, when it comes down to it) for the Roman Empire under Constantine. It didn’t come down from the clouds on the palm of God. It was inspired by one man’s way of living — as it was reported (and more than likely embellished) — a man who might well abhor what became of his legacy if he were to return.
Coates winds up his treatise here, but I’d like to further the discussion some for myself with a few questions. In the case of the world as it is today (or even as it has been for the last couple of thousand years) hasn’t religion become intrinsically related to identity? Don’t the majority of people identify themselves as members of a particular creed? Does it not seem the case that even those who would renounce religion still feel the need to identify themselves as having a belief in _something_; as an atheist or an agnostic or whatever? And that if they don’t, they’ll be treading water, fearing that the currents will carry them out to sea? Might this not be a loose description of the _angst_ so well captured by the existentialist dramatists and philosophers?
It brings to mind the concept of _bad faith_, as explored in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre. Bad faith, as in the avoidance of personal responsibility for one’s own decisions. _Oh I’m too weak-minded to decide for myself what’s right and what’s wrong, I’ll let (the Pope/the Ayatollah/L Ron Hubbard) do it for me._ Insofar as this, it seems evident that most of society lives in bad faith. Without trying to sound overly pretentious, we fear the _angst_ of existential alienation; we don’t want to feel that _nausea_, those pangs of anxiety and loneliness, even though it doesn’t last for long.
(Here’s a pop-culture reference for you: in one scene from The Abyss (1990), scientists onboard a submarine drown a lab rat in a tank of hyperoxygenated fluid. But the rat doesn’t die. It might think it’s taking its last breath — the audience surely does — but in a matter of moments its lungs adjust to the liquid and it resumes normal respiration. This — _a-ha!_ — could be compared to the angst one might feel when abandoning a certain belief system to intuit one’s own rational ideas; one might gasp for air, feeling unable to bear the loss of the foundation that has propped one up for so long — but this moment of fear (or confusion, or discomfort) soon passes, and one takes a major step towards living in good faith.)
Coates, in his conclusion, feels that he doesn’t “know anything that’s going to do any good in this situation, except a faith — not in divinity — but in humanity’s capability to tell its arse from its elbow”. Yet he also states that even this is a faith he lost some time ago. In my own humble opinion, however, I think it is still possible. _Potentially_. Every one of us has the potential to live in good faith with an open mind. I’ve taken the first few steps myself. But until people start opening their eyes, realising their potential, and letting go of this baggage — this dependency on religious doctrine and dogma — to move with the times (and it doesn’t even have to be anything major; we don’t need any great irreligious revolution, just a few steps in the right direction to prove that there indeed is some hope for us) then I fear that we’re pretty much doomed to keep repeating our mistakes, over and over, again and again. They say the more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s bad faith in a nutshell.
To conclude for myself, I don’t wish to come across as some sort of ruthless agnostic _conquistador_ on a mission to convert all religious, theistic heathens to the civilised ways of science and reason. Because good faith isn’t black and white, it’s not about right or wrong. Living in good faith does not mean abandoning one belief system and slotting the opposite into its place — that’s just exchanging one form of bad faith for another! Living in good faith should mean freeing yourself from external influences that don’t have your best interests at heart, seeking out that which feels right for you, opening your mind to new (or old) ideas, making your own reasoned judgments, and not forcing said judgments down the throats of others. It should mean open debate and discussion, not polarised argument and confrontation. (Here’s another pop-culture reference: Pi Patel’s religious experiences, and the consequences thereof, in the opening chapters of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi deal with this issue much more eloquently than I’m doing here.)
Considering a recent weblog post by Mat Honan on the subject of religion — an essay that while not technically related to Coates’ article nonetheless serves as a fitting companion piece — what we have is a textbook example of someone who lives in good faith. I might not share Mat’s belief in divinity, but there is no doubt that I respect his beliefs. He came to his position much in the same way as I came to mine, so what’s not to respect?
And besides, when you get down to the nitty gritty, when people respect each other despite their differences, when people relate to each other, person-to-person, the differences really don’t matter at all.

Excerpt from a Conversation On Joining the Army

Him: So dude, when are you joining the medics with me?
Me: I’m not.
Him: Ahh why not?
Me: I’m a pacifist.
Him: But we’re _medics!_
Me: Dude I know you wish we were like the guys in Scrubs but life just ain’t like that, Bambi.
Him: (Queue music with me looking off into the distance)
Me: (Queue Wonder Years-esque voice-over)