Deaths this week

A number of notables have died this week. I’m guessing that my readers will already be familiar with the recent announcement the deaths of Keith Floyd and Patrick Swayze. I know nothing about the former, although I did note that there was a documentary on him last night on C4, it seemed an odd coincidence. I thought the documentary more notable for being presented by Keith Allen, who I know as the actor for the Sheriff of Nottingham and Lily Allen’s dad.

I thought I would bring to light some lives who deserve to be remembered for both intellectual and humanitarian reasons. For the intellectual I note the death of William P. Alston, and for the humanitarian, Norman Borlaug.

Norman Borlaug

The one thing that is said about this man is that he is called ‘the man who saved a billion lives’. Borlaug venerated by Penn Jillette, which for me is something worth noting (considering the latter’s deprecation of many others by means of calling it bullshit!). Borlaug’s career involved research that led to what is known as the ‘Green Revolution’, and his work on wheat has led to practical benefits of increase crop yields to meet the needs of sustaining an increasing population from the 1920s.

There is a lot of talk about sustainability in terms of how much natural resources in non-renewables sources are left. A distinct, but related issue is the consideration of population. This issue goes back to Malthus and arguably even earlier: can the physical size of the planet, as well as the resources, whether ecological, social and economic sustain such a high population? This will likely be an issue that will have to be faced in the future, if it isn’t seriously addressed now in the same way that climate change and the finitude of non-renewables are.

Borlaug offered a real and practical resolve to increasing population by investigating and getting results from establishing an increased crop yield. Borlaug is also a public figure on the issue of population and world hunger. Although I am not terribly familiar with his position, he took an approach of addressing the technological possibility of how food resources have.

Criticisms have been advacned towards a biotechnology approach to farming. The innovations of Borlaug have led to a monopoly upon farming biotechnologies, the likes of Monsanto, for instance, have a particular agenda pushing a certain kind of farming to the fore of dependence on biotechnologies seen as negative. Movements that try to encourage pre-19thC methods of production have flourished in recent times. The opinion is curried that ‘organic’ is better and that we should move towards permaculture in deference to the land. Despite these issues (which do not remain moot); the needs of a large population is of practical and contemporary significance.

William Alston

William Alston is one of the people who should be credited with making Christianity philosophically respectable. Alston is part of a movement that includes the likes of Alvin Plantinga and perhaps Peter van Inwagen, whose focus on philosophical issues of theology put them into an intellectual fringe.

There has been a wide opinion that philosophy of religion is basically dead; all one needs to do is read Hume’s dialogues on the issue and find that Philo is essentially correct (of course, the dialogue mysteriously ends with Cleanthes as the victor…).  The issues of philosophy of religion, as taught by the likes of John Hick and Peter Vardy are dull, boring, and by the admission of Vardy himself, aimless if one has already made up their mind. The old issues of the ‘five ways’, the bastardised Kantian considerations, or the arguments that attempt to validate religious experience (following William James). Addressing the primary texts, with the systematic considerations of each individual philosopher is always a good idea, which is often not considered in philosophy of religion teaching.

Another thing is that, while contemporary philosophy moves on with wonderful new theses, issues and debates (while old ones still live); philosophy of religion has been percieved to be stuck in this dry old patch of repetitive and hundred-year old debates presented in a way such that it has not advanced at all. In some respects they have not, this is due to some bad philosophy on some parts (e.g. Ayer’s ‘Language, Truth and Logic’), and the fact that theology and philosophy has very few ‘dual-practitioners’ who are particularly very good, especially since both subjects have specialised and have moved apart from each other (this in itself is good for other reasons).

New issues come into mind, get deeper into the metaphysics, such as Swinburne or notably van Inwagen, and some get deeper into the scientific arguments, leading to more refined and (excuse the pun) ‘evolved’ arguments from teleology (William Lane Craig). There are new epistemological concerns, or in the case of Craig’s advocation of the ‘middle knowledge’ thesis, a serious philosophical revival of old views. While it is likely that philosophy becomes increasingly atheistic, the fight for Christian doctrine has advanced to a greater level. It is unfortunate that these Christian philosophers are the exception and not the mainstream of apologetic arguers.  These individuals are not as shallow and underqualified as the ‘New Atheists’ (excepting those NAs with actual PhDs); the arguments for faith and supernatural beliefs go to a higher and more technical level. The onus now is on how good those arguments are. A should be attributed to William Alston for establishing this movement.  As a side note (unfortunately placed at the end of the article), Alston is a decent philosopher in his own right regarding debates in contemporary American epistemology, which, I feel, is sadly being undermined by new emerging movements like ‘formal philosophy’ (of course this is not to say at all that formal epistemology is a bad thing!)


1984 , read in 2009 (thoughts and reflections)

I read 1984 in the space of 3-4 days. This is a surprise for me. Often, books that I really like and get into (which happens to me about once every 5 years) are read very quickly. I read multiple books simultaneously over the months and weeks: I’m still reading Twilight (I’m on p18x), I’m still reading a book on modal logic and non-classical logical systems (excellent to read on the tube, may I add), and I’m slowly wading through Aquinas. For some reason, perhaps its availability on my bookshelf, and the few articles I saw on the book, I was reminded of Orwell’s original work and wanted to revisit it.

I had read 1984 when I was about 13, at the same time that I had a very sinister english teacher. This offending english teacher had a cold grey face and bordered on sadistic; she would treat us in very demeaning and harsh ways at some times while appearing entirely casual and jovial at the next, one was always at a worry as to how she would react. She was a teacher who assumed too much her class. We were asked to read 1984 as a background reading task, at an age and level where ‘background reading’ didn’t exist in our vocabulary. I read 1984 when I was thirteen, and i barely understood it. All I remembered about it as a bit about how the world was depicted, and the sex scenes.

Reading it now, I have a much more vivid imagination of the book. I imagine London when I read 1984. The proles exist today, as they always have, and I suppose, as they always will. I understood the manner of the people. I understood the annoyances and ugliness of the reality that it shows. I particularly resonated to the description of the razor blade situation: namely, that in the futuristic world of 1984; razorblades and other necessary conveniences like electrical or housing maintenance are so scarce that improvisation is a must. I shall list some of my considerations of the book in a list format:

1. Winston Smith represents the human spirit, this is explicitly said in the torture scene. The human spirit is the siprit of rebellion against obvious repression, the subversion of conformity when it needs and rightly needs to be oppressed, and the curiousity of one’s sense of place in the world, whether of history or their biography. In numerous occaisions, Smith defies the party line, by writing his thoughts in a diary, and by having thoughts at all; he goes against the doctrines that are unquestionable by society. The moral of the story is that the human spirit is mutable. Despite objecting against the party, every person, like the human spirit in general, has its limitation. Every person has their ‘room 101’, the point at which all debate or objection or will power is to be thrwarted in a sense of fear and self-preservation. The story of 1984 is the failure of the human spirit. Winston refused to be a martyr and accept certain death as an enemy of a party, but instead, it is uncertain if he ends up being killed by the party, but it is certain, that his spirit is killed when he defects to the party and his romantic love.

2. Re-writing history does make me think a bit. There are many people who question the figures about the deaths after world war 2.  A certain story about historical events are given and accepted. While it is in the space of historical debate and scholarship to question history and our interpretation of history, there is an almost unbearable prejudice and normative impulse to leave some issues as unquestionable. People who question the 9/11 attacks or interpret it in a way different to the ‘official story’, or the ‘six million’ figure of the holocaust, are labelled as eccentric at best or somehow deviously immoral at the worst. There are some aspects or tidbits of history or our political sentiment that are almost like INGSOC’s party line. I have no position about questioning historical figures, although the social acceptance of positive discrimination and ‘diversity’ policies  to the extent of undermining meritocracy and the status of elite (viz meritocracy) institutions are abhorrent.

3. Doublespeak. Although not as obvious as in 1984, i remember back in the late 90s how I heard two things: hospitals and experiences in the NHS are terrible, and, hospitals are getting increasnigly better, more hospitals are being built, targets are being met and exceeded, and more money is being put into hospitals. Healthcare was doublespeak. Contradictory to the point of being completely obscrue as to what the clear and balanced truth was. I suspect that a similar ‘doublespeak’ will happen with higher education in the near future.

4. Ministries. The government ministries, whenever I hear the names of them, make me laugh out loud. There is a ministry for sport and a ministry for culture. I suspect that the culture secretary is a philistine fool, and I suspect that the sport secretary is pyhsically unfit. Although this is a personal insult more than an argument; a serious point must be made as to the kind of extent such a ministry can genuinely help rather than hinder the object of their ministry. How much, for instance, can a ministry of sport help either an individual sport, or sport as a whole. There are some sports which are so established not to be really addressed by a government (except when it goes wrong). Football has a national and international federation where conduct is managed and there is some sucess to the bureaucracy of this organisation, insofar as football is a beloved pasttime. A similar case may be said of Rugby, and to a lesser extent, Cricket.

It is a fair point to make that sports that do not have commercial help do need governmental support. Athletes must maintain ‘amateur’ status in order to compete for international competitions like the olympics, and finding financial support will always be difficult. However, to have a ministry of sport by definition is to establish a notion of an ‘establishment’ of sports. To focus on olympic sports is to ignore underground or emerging sports. A similar point can be made of culture. Do we support avant garde movements that are too new to be known whether they will succeed or be fruitful? or, does the place of a government ministry place unhealthy support towards certain kinds of perspectives on art, culture and archictecture (consider the unhelpful case of Prince Charles on debates concerning modern archictecture).

5. How should we interpret this book? There are many people who consider ‘Orwellian’ as an adjective for the current political and social climate. I don’t think that is very accurate, for the fascistic control of the government and the overt nature of the ‘thought police’ is too far away from how control is established. As a side point, I wonder how Foucault would have thought of 1984. Perhaps he did indeed read it. I should check out if he did know of it. Foucauldian is perhaps a more apt depiction of the degrees of control over conduct than Orwellian. The discourses of the mid-20th centruy had advanced with the end of Stalinism. A next step of reading 1984, if one is trying to apprehend our notion of the current age, should be complimented by reading Foucault.


Open source and ‘freeware’

The other day, while on a 4 hour train trek across the country. I managed to get through an issue of a broadsheet and a consumer magazine; it was the latter that really made me think. I bought one of those laptop guides. When it comes to computers, I know that I’m not really a knowledgeable person, but I know what makes things ‘go’ at times. I was surprised to see, when they were addressing some of the relevant factors for selecting software, that I came across a certain kind of ‘moot’ opinion of Openoffice.

The magazine editors were doing a piece comparing non-MS office packages; and openoffice was one of them (and the only one that had no cost!). Openoffice had two flaws apparently:

1. Openoffice does not have some of the functions of MS office 2007, or compatibility with the latest windows office file types. This is certainly true, but this is more a flaw on Microsoft’s part! If any of you have the later versions of MS Word, you might notice that the file type (.docx) is entirely new compared to the .doc. So, if you are emailing a document, you might put yourself, and the other person on the spot, if they can’t read that document they have sent! Putting things in compatibility mode, whether openoffice, or the new word, is a must. In some professions, PDF is the standard for documents anyway, which isn’t allied to a specific or single software package. Openness and compatibility are key these days.

2. Openoffice is blamed, ‘due to being freeware’, of having a few things ‘less’ than other packages. This just sounds like an obvious insult. Consumer magazines strive in a sense to both be unbiases to the personal prejudices of the editorial staff, as well as give deference to the companies that sponsor their publication viz adverdvertising.

This made me think. What exactly is ‘freeware’?

By another event, I was interested in computer games that have either expired copyright or were free. Basically, I found that there were certain kinds of games which do not have copyright or piracy kinds of issues, basically, free games:

1. Ad-supported retail games – these tend to be older games and this is a recent development
2. (A subsection of 1.) Games supported by the US military – this is odd, but this has some strange appeal to me, as if I were to be better in combat situations.
3. Commercial games declared as freeware: this is for various reasons; promoting a sequel, or the latest game in a series, expiration, or sometimes, microsoft have made games under a weird ‘shared license’ notion.
4. Games developed basically by the developer independently. I noticed a figure named Derek Smart, for instance, who seems to be a candidate for this kind of thing: I’m not quite sure how to appraise this type of game release

I consider these species of freeware to be distinct from the software that is released under the GNU license. There are lots of different motivations for releasing freeware, and the open source movement is so distinct, that it almost seems derogatory to deem it ‘freeware’. A better taxonomy should be made anyhow.


Anniversaries in september

It’s cliche to make a post saying where I was on 9th September 2001. This year, on all the blog feeds, the stories tend to be quite short-term headlines. These days, stories can be ongoing and have many stories as things develop: some of the headlines are:

i. Awards to British troops in Afghanistan
ii. PM’s apology concerning Turing’s treatment
iii. SA female runner’s ‘alleged’ hermaphrodite claim. What I find most interesting about this, is that the headlines predate the actual allegation. All the things that are said are that ‘there are reports’, or one paper has made the statement first that she’s a hermaphrodite. This is very bad news, banking cheques before they’re made.

What isn’t a terribly attended story is that it’s the 8th anniversary for that incident that had been talked about all of this decade. Perhaps this is a good thing; the political climate has moved on and other issues have arisen. The anniversary that I’m thinking more about is the 15th September 2008. Coincidently its another personal anniversary, but, apparently, it is the date that Lehman Brothers had declared bankrupcy. Although there was some action about a year before, this looks like the most identifiable of events to determine the start of the ‘credit crunch’.

I think that perhaps history will refine our perspective on the true impact of those events.


The domestication of science fiction

Science fiction is one of my favourite literary genres, beside treatises’ and other kinds of classical literature. In some ways I like science fiction for the wrong reasons. You may be wondering, what kind of ‘wrong reasons’ could there be?

Science fiction is a genre that, in its origins, was genuinely challenging and thought provoking. Now, I wonder sometimes if science fiction is actually a ‘genre’, or is something that most people are willing to accept within part of a story. Or, in the context of film, drama and gaming, is just another part of the furniture that no one shall come to question. This latter aspect leads to the sterility of the genre.

Has science fiction been around for long enough so as to establish itself as part of a pantheon of literary classics? What counts as science fiction? Another component of the sterility of science fiction is the uncritical acceptance of space opera, flying spacecraft and technological superiority. People are so exposed to certain kinds of science fiction idiom that we do not often see it as anything else. It is, as if, science fiction has become another branch of cocaygne fantasy.

Consider aspects of science fiction which, while we consider gritty, reflect not only our own social condition, but the general ambience of the human condition: The Time Machine is perhaps a cliche case; social stratification. A book that I had recently read was Harry Harrison’s Deathworld, where a stratification operated as two parts of a complete organism, within the context of issues concerning the issue of the ‘scarcity gap’. Do we have enough resources to fulfill the needs and wants of all people? If not, how do our attitudes change to the recognition of this fact? (or in our case, how do our attitudes not change).

Living in space should be uncomfortable and ugly, where the water should constantly be acknolwedged as recycled piss, realising this makes science fiction a fucutre less glamorous. A common meme of future times is the flying car, some authors ironically point to the fact that technology either has not or cannot reach such a level despite the reader’s expectation. Good science fiction ought to take us out of what is our comfort zone of literary, social and scientific expectation. Thinking outside the box, and unfamiliar ideas are brought to the fore as a response to social and ecological problems.


Link: PM’s Turing apology

Please see this link for an official apology of Turing’s treatment.

In a sense it does seem pointless to apologise for something that one as an individual was not responsible for; what the apology symbolises is an acceptance of homosexuality, or more specifically, the intolerance of homophobia. I’ve many dear friends who have had a lot invested into this petition.

I think that the statement marks a real change in attitudes. Political correctness is a many sided object, but some faces are quite good.


Character profiles: Elim Garak

I’ve been thinking about the moral and psychological import of fictional characters, and for a good while, I’ve been thinking about writing on this blog about them. Characters I like or find influential; characters who seem powerful or exhibit an attitude towards life that is particularly striking. I thought I would start off by Elim Garak, of the Star Trek Deep Space Nine Series.

Elim Garak

The Cardassian species possess characteristics which seem to be a potential next step in human development. Contrasted to the other species in the Star Trek universe, they seem to appear as a ‘middle-way’, yet are also candidates for extremities for character in their own right. Not overly focused on violence like the Klingons, nor do they place fundamental importance to rationality like the Vulcans; Cardassians exhibit aggression, however in a more subtle and less open way than the Klingons. The Cardassians are also educated to a high degree; a gender divide exists among their species, in that the females are predominantly scientists and engineers, while politico-military roles are largely filled by men.

Elim Garak is both the exemplar of his species and yet an exile. Garak is deceptive and ought not to be trusted. However, his default attitude towards unfamiliars is friendliness. Garak is for the most part, stoic about his true emotions and reveals very little. A master of interpersonal psychology, Garak is the perfect espionage archetype.

A motto of Garak is: never tell the truth when a lie will do. Garak’s philosophy, as a spy is that, among enemies, neutrals and even those of one’s side: do not reveal too much, as information is power. When one is politically or socially powerless as he: exiled by his government and in the custody by unfriendly powers, he uses information, by the witholding, extraction, and false face, as his power.

What is most interesting about Garak is the mystery around him: he never reveals his true feelings or agenda. Often among people who know some of his secrets, he refuses to confirm them. A witty glow about him even among those who are suspicious of him; nothing is more aggrivating than not being disclosed information. Garak is a person who may be useful when an enemy, or antagonistic if an ally; his mystery is sustained as he internalises the psychological doctrines of the Cardassians.

Garak is an archetypal individual who would thrive in those times between overt war and peace; the realistic and uncomfortable cease fires and difficult and unstable neutral political relationships.