Hello, world. I’m MacDara Conroy, and this is my blog.

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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,
MacDara

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.