Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Limited Toolkit

"When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." This quotation is normally used by liberals to decry a conservative tendency towards monolinear thinking.

However, political and social liberals like myself tend to have an equivalent (or perhaps hypervalent) tendency that may be worse: "When all you have is a toolbox, everything looks like a tool."

Which is to say, we tend to see every effort by an authority-holding entity to be one aimed at curtailing liberties. In that, we make ourselves libertarians, not liberals. True liberals should be in most (if not all) cases prepared to critique and criticise everything - including their own assumptions about power, the state, truth, expression, and other such constructs.

Sometimes, the majority of people do want simple things - not to be bombarded with advertisements, not to have faux news inflicted on them. Is that censorship? If the state speaks for the people who created it or who elected the governing moiety of that state, do they have a right to rein in special interests on behalf of those people? Is this tyranny by majority (an oxymoron for those who know their history)?

Ah, questions, questions. But remember: the toolbox must have tools in it, and the more, the better. I'd rather not have only a set of really big power tools at the expense of my jewellers' screwdrivers and other diverse and mismatched tools.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The End of Politics?

It wasn't so long ago that you could look at a political landscape and feel all kinds of ire at the repression of political freedom. And it is still true today that you can do that. But there are fewer kinds of ire now. In a world without borders and states, the individual will and action become more important and yet less so, since there will be fewer instruments to leverage that power.

What happens as we sink (or rise) towards greater equipotential is that each person will have more space and less effect. Suppose that information, energy, time and material resources are all distributed evenly. Then there are fewer or no gradients, and work cannot be done. This is why great works require great inequities.

But no, this is not a politically safe statement to make.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Urgency is not Agency

I have a lot of students. For some reason, they wait until their assignments are almost due, and then they consult me. They seem to feel that unless there is urgency, there is no emergency. They forget that 'emerge' in its original sense implies the rise of that which is submerged, and the deeper it is submerged, the longer it takes to emerge.

It's for that reason that I must remind them that urgency is not agency. Just because the matter is of some urgency to a student doesn't mean that I must be spurred into action. Indeed, the closer it is to a deadline, the busier I seem to be. What used to be a same-day or eight-hour maximum turnaround time is now about 72 hours or three days simply because the queue for consultations is very long.

Advice for future students: get yours early to avoid disappointment — those who consult me now may be paying as much as a 100% premium over my usual rates. I can't help it; I want to help, but I won't die for my students, and the extra earnings go towards my medical insurance and maintaining the resources I use to help solve their problems.

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Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Imaginary Friends

When we were very young, we had friends who were toys, whom we assigned lives to, and who were what we now call imaginary friends. And supposedly, as adults we are supposed to grow out of such imaginings. But that is not it at all.

You see, the imaginary is the most powerful form of cognition. Whether it is a formal (in several senses) construct like a memory palace, used to recall a myriad facts, or a stuffed bear with a too-small red shirt and now become a cultural icon, we use the hologram images of our imagination to store an abundance of our lives.

Here's the thing. Even if (as Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris assert) our cognition of self and the world is merely an emergent illusion stemming from chemical complexity, all that illusory richness retains structure better if the basis of illusion is more complex. It is like having a back-story that is never published, but forms the basis for a fantasy realm.

And so, Christopher Robin and Pooh, Calvin and Hobbes, and a host of other half-real and half-imagined friends, here's to you! May you never fade except as the tired old illusion of life fades, and may you greet us as we pass from illusory existence to illusory ending.

My previous cat was a smokey darkness with white socks. He waited on the roof, with only the shadow of his pricking ears to show his presence. Then you opened the door, and that would galvanise him into some frantic process of descent which would end with him in the house at your feet, hoping for a rub-and-scratch. He is gone now, buried in a little plot to the side of the house. But I, the illusory resident in this illusory realm, still look up seeking pointy ears some evenings. That illusion of memory, of life other than my own, it makes me seem more real even though Dennett and Harris might very well be right.

Who's to know? These days, marmalade sun-cat looks upon me with curious green eyes, miaows softly, comes for his morning head-rub. Over the years, I have come to associate intelligence and warmth with that cat. It is no doubt an illusion. But it gives me an illusory warmth far greater than the chilly sad confusion of Sam Harris's Free Will, in which he asserts that he had none when he wrote the book and I had none, reading it.

And so again, here's to imaginary friends, even those we have the luxurious illusion of thinking are real. Here's to the friends of my childhood: Darwin, Tesla, Newton, and the powerful ghosts who once lived within an imaginary five-mile radius of my imaginary birthplace in that great imaginary, the Isle of Ely. Cheers, and a solemn sherry to you all.

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