Monday, June 30, 2008

Debate...

... is not de ding you use to catch de fish.

Oyaji gyagu aside, I'm not an experienced debater myself, so do take what I have to say here with a pinch of salt.

It seems to me that there's something fundamentally flawed about the art of debate. In the sciences, the strength of hypothesis is ultimately tested through observation. Evidence decides all, though in some fields, particularly archaeology, a scarcity of physical evidence means one has to base one's conclusions on very little indeed. Still, the scientific method has been the truest engine of building knowledge upon knowledge since the meme rose to it's present place in human evolution. There is discussion, there is exchange of ideas, and experimentation and observation, but things will have come to a pretty pass indeed if knowledge was based merely on the oratorical skill of whoever put forward an idea.

Which brings me to the matter of debate. On the face of it, a debate pits two opposing viewpoints against each other, each represented by one or more people to present their cases. It seems reasonable enough in theory, but having witnessed a fair number of debates on Skeptic.com and the RDF forums the reality of it seems so very, very far removed from the purity of the scientific method.

In debate we will see all manner of trickery to press home one's argument and undermine the opposition's. There will be straw man and weak man arguments, ad hominem attacks, plain old ignoring of the other's questions and, what I find most annoying of all, mismatched semantic frameworks. In the event that the debate is carried out in person, i.e. with both parties face-to-face, as opposed to a written debate on a Net forum, we also find that the party with the fundamentally weaker argument will resort to use of humour, ridicule or even shouting to win over the audience. And the thing is, none of these tactics, considered part and parcel of debate, necessarily have anything to do with the quality of information being brought to the table. And so it just seems to me, as a true blue empiricist, that debate is just a lot of hot air.

And one other thing about debate: It gives the impression to those ignorant of the subject matter that the viewpoints being presented stand on an equal footing. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don't. There's a painfully absurd myth among those not versed in basic evolutionary biology that there is an ongoing Creation Vs Evolution debate - there ISN'T. It's been about 150 years since Darwin first laid out the basic theory. It takes very, very little evidence to bring it all crashing to the ground. In 150 years, no solid evidence whatsoever has been brought forward, and yet we still find that such debates take place. And for complete and utter lack of evidence on the Creationist front, the faithful resort to the petty tricks mentioned above. Especially shouting. I find that those lacking in any solid basis for their arguments with a little too much pride are especially prone to shouting fits. Dawkins gets shouted at a lot, poor devil.

So that's my tuppence on debate. Sometimes it's a good way to hear to opposing viewpoints, other times it's just an ugly mess of linguistic mucking about. And it certainly doesn't have a place in the scientific method.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Aunty revisited: Aunty-intellectualism

Further to my previous post, I did a little asking around over the net regarding how one should define aunty. Here's a list of some more adjectives that average Malaysian/Singaporean Chinese associate with auntyness:

naggy, prudish, loud, anachronistically conservative, narrow, fickle, MILF(???*)

Above list will be updated as more suggestions come in over the week. NotKieran (who's Singaporean, Chinese and thus totally qualified to comment) translated the original sentence ("She very aunty laiddat") as:

She's a nosy, bossy, gossipy, prideful superstitious old baggage who expects the world to pander to her.

Abovementioned translation came with a pic that was just too good not to share:

Reminds me of a certain fundie aunt of mine...

I must confess, at the time I wrote that entry, I didn't really dwell so heavily on the negative aspects of auntyness and was thinking more about the role of aunty-ish individuals in preserving traditional Chinese culture. So I'd like to devote this entry to discussing the place of auntyness in contemporary urban Chinese society.

Thinking back to a couple of dinners I had recently with my relatives, many of whom could be described as aunty-ish (literally, too) we make the following observations regarding the aunty mind. Please note that for the purpose of this entry, the word "aunty" will be used to refer to individuals who are aunty-ish and we'll ignore the common definition of aunty for now. I recommend using the ahn-TEE pronounciation mentioned in the previous post to help make the distinction.

The upbringing of the aunty mind is steeped in tradition, and is almost without exception carried out under authoritarian conservative Chinese parents. As such, much of the aunty mind's early development will be defined by the unquestioned "hard-coding" of traditional Chinese culture into their minds. To discuss traditional Chinese culture at length is beyond the scope of this entry, so I'll keep this restricted to highlighting the key behavioural drivers of traditional Chinese culture:

1) Material wealth is the primary measure of success. As such, intellectual achievement is valued if and only if it contributes to one's ability to make money. Hence philosophers, artists and scientists are traditionally considered inferior to, say, bankers, lawyers and entrepreneurs.

2) Loyalty to family above all else. The more closely related, the better. Note that this loyalty takes precedence over duty to society as a whole, hence the propensity for Chinese communities worldwide to coalesce and never quite fully integrate and go native.

3) Age is directly proportional to seniority in ALL respects. One is meant to listen to one's elders without question, for no reason other than because they are older. We note that senility is not factored into this.

Between these three drivers, we get an anti-intellectual society that glorifies material wealth above all else. Also, since traditional Chinese society is distinctly patriarchal, the aunty mind is prone to growing up and reaching maturity completely devoid of skeptical inquiry, since a girl's questions are far more likely to be ignored than a boy's. So although the aunty mind is a useful repository for traditional Chinese culture (and really, there are positive aspects to it, e.g. Chinese culinary arts), it is also a bastion of anti-intellectualism in contemporary Chinese society.

And so it is that we find many adult individuals in Chinese society whose belief system is based around the three drivers mentioned above, whose upbringing has been sorely lacking in matters of ethics and reason. It is interesting to note that owing to the lack of reason holding reign over the aunty mind, the aunty is rarely subject to cognitive dissonance and, like many Republican conservatives, is capable of breathtaking feats of hypocrisy. This is pretty much why the fundie Christian communities of Malaysia and Singapore are almost exclusively Chinese.

Also, without a solid grounding in ethics backed by reason (i.e. a humbler perspective of one's place in society) the aunty mind is often under the sway of that very old, very persuasive evolutionary driver - egocentricity. So the aunty mind will often have an over-inflated sense of self-importance. The aunty will often be loud, selfish and dismissive of views that do not agree with her own. So great is the aunty's sense of self-importance that they often view their ignorance of intellectual matters as a good thing, wearing their ignorance like a badge of honour.

This egocentricity, coupled with driver #2 above, means that the aunty almost always has racist leanings. This isn't so much born out of an actual malice towards other ethnic groups as much as a general unwillingness to understand other cultures. Throw their anti-intellectualism into the equation and you wind up with a breed of person who is very quick indeed to dismiss other cultures and traditions as barbaric and nonsensical.

Please note that I do note write this as a sexist, racist tirade of cultural self-loathing. This is simply an observation of a reality that I am personally familiar with. Had I been brought up with greater exposure to other cultures, I might speak more authoritatively on them. However, I wasn't, hence I cannot, not without further research, anyway. I have no reason to doubt that other traditionally patriarchal East Asian societies have their own parallels to the aunty being described here.

But fear not, Chinese comrades, all is not lost! The information revolution is having a clear effect on the traditional Chinese worldview, and greater access to information is leading to younger generations of Chinese questioning the 3 drivers (especially #3), and greater equality between the sexes is rapidly producing more and more Chinese women capable of critical thought. To be sure, there's plenty of work to be done in promoting the cause of science and reason in our world, but we can at least take some comfort in knowing that the aunty's days are numbered.

* I didn't get this one either.

Stack o' razors

Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatum.* - William of Ockham

Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate.** - Same guy

If a thing can be done adequately by means of one, it is superfluous to do it by means of several; for we observe that nature does not employ two instruments where one suffices.*** - Thomas Aquinas

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. - Leonardo da Vinci

Brevity is the soul of wit. - William Shakespeare

It seems that perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. - Antoine de Saint Exupery

We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances. - Isaac Newton

The supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience. - Albert Einstein

The simplest explanation is almost always, "Somebody screwed up." - Dr Gregory House

No need so complicating one lah. - Mr Tan, my 4th Form Maths teacher


Ah, the wonderful irony of this list...

I must say, though, on purely aesthetic grounds, I think Shakespeare's the winner here. Also, my opinion of Thomas Aquinas has dropped drastically.


* Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.

** Pluralities ought not to be posited without necessity.

*** WARNING! WARNING! BULLSHIT DETECTED!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Manglish/Singlish 101 - Aunty

I've had this idling about the back of my head the past couple of days. Maybe Singaporean friends can help me with this. I was wondering how to translate this sentence into the Queen's English:

She very aunty laiddat.

That's more or less how it's pronounced, anyway. The word "laiddat" is simply the way Chinese Malaysians/Singaporeans pronounce "like that", so in fact every word in the sentence is quite clearly English, i.e.:

She very aunty like that.

It's not a sentence I've ever used in the presence of gweilo friends, so I'm not quite sure what kind of a reaction that would get. I'm thinking along the lines of "zomgwtf???" But stick with me, this sentence does actually make perfect sense to Malaysians and Singaporeans.

In this sentence, "aunty" is not actually a noun, but an adjective. As such, the sentence could be rearranged to a more grammatically correct form:

She is very aunty-ish.

Here "laiddat" has been dropped as it doesn't actually serve any meaningful purpose in the sentence other than to make it roll off the Malaysian/Singaporean tongue more smoothly. "Aunty" is also pronounced slightly differently from the BBC-English way. In BBC-English, one would stress the first syllable, giving AHN-ty. However, Chinese Malaysians/Singaporeans stress the second syllable, i.e. ahn-TEE, preferably with a very slight nasal quality to it. And so we are left with the problem of defining the word "aunty" as perceived by the Chinese Malaysian/Singaporean community.

To us, an "aunty" does not necessarily have to be related to you in any way whatsoever. It is common for Chinese Malaysians/Singaporeans to refer to any male or female of the generation before them as "uncle" or "aunty" as a form of honorific. In the same way, a male or female of the same generation can be referred to as an elder brother or sister. This is very much reflective of the Confucian influence on Chinese culture:

四海之內,皆兄弟也

That is, Confucius he say: Within the Four Seas, all are brothers. Don't ask me which Four Seas, I haven't a clue.

That having been said, in the context of this sentence, "aunty" is not actually an honorific but a fairly detailed descriptor of a female individual. Much like how one may say:

She is very sloane-ish.

or

She is such a brat.

or even

She is a bit of a bitch.

And so we narrow it down to the last remaining hurdle, defining the "aunty". And I haven't a frickin' clue. Note that "aunty" as an adjective can even be applied to someone of the same generation or even younger. Some adjectives that I would associate with "aunty" are: Old-fashioned, conservative, pragmatic... not really sure what else.

And one must, of course, always bear in mind that when we say old-fashioned, we're always talking from the Chinese perspective here. Hence someone who is very "aunty" is often very well versed indeed in the ins and outs of traditional Chinese culture, e.g. wedding and funeral rites, culinary traditions, medical theory* and fashion sense.

I'm not quite sure if I've managed to answer my own question in this discussion in a hand-wavy sort of way. Gut instinct tells me I'm on the right track, but as Chinese go, I'm not very Chinese, so I could be a bit off. Comments definitely very much appreciated here.

* Especially in the matter of segregating all manner of foodstuffs into "heaty" and "cooling". This is a long story in its own right, and is rooted in Chinese Qi theory, which I personally think is very heavily corrupted with complete bollocks, even though it does have some merit in there somewhere.

That stroke really needs a better name

I just heard the most awesome sentence over lunch today, spoken by this nice lass who will not be named:

"My hands are sore from breaststroking all day."

Cheng, Cheng, Cheng... Get yer mind out of the gutter...

Friday, June 27, 2008

Kawaisou na Usajii...

I just got me a Domo-kun yesterday. I luv Domo-kun. He presently sits in my car, entertaining my passengers and keeping me from sleeping at the wheel. For those of you who now think I'm crazy as a sack of rats, Domo-kun is the mascot of Nippon Housou Kyoukai, that is, Japan's public broadcaster.

He hatched from an egg and lives underground with a wise old rabbit called Usajii. Loves TV and Guitar Wolf. Farts when he's stressed. Here's a compilation of the short wee clips where Domo-kun turns up in between programmes:

Further musings on the Handbag of Doom

Reading the response to my previous post, there's 2 directions I'd like to take this now:

1) What's "reasonable force"?

Honest question here, not being sarky. Taking the base case Malaysian scenarios: Guy holds you up with a parang or mat rempit snatches your bag in a drive by on those wretched little mopeds they ride. What's the reasonable amount of aggression one could unleash upon them in self defense? That is, how much whupass can I have in my Handbag of Doom that will let me get away scot-free?

I'm guessing a decent firecracker blast of paint (for easy identification of the perp) and mace (coz it fucking hurts) should be more or less reasonable. Of course, such a piddly small bang would have to be a bit more cunningly implemented, triggered by opening the bag, say.

And as a rule of thumb, anything causing permanent physical damage to the perp will probably get you in trouble. Am I on the right track here?

2) On a much darker note, what if one could get away with it?

What if the bag was intentionally lethal and untracable? Would anyone give a shit that a common thief was messily wiped off the face of the Earth? It's very tempting to just say, "Who cares? It's just a thief!" isn't it?

In any society, there will be winners and there will be losers. High incidence of crime is indicative of two things:

i) Not everybody is getting their slice of the economic pie; and
ii) Inferior policing.

Don't forget for a moment that thief or not, they're people with lives and stories, just like you or me or anyone else. And I've no doubt at all that many of those whom we label criminals are people who've been on the unhappy end of exactly the wrong set of circumstances. Inadequate education, MP not delivering on promises to spruce up a constituency, economic downturn or just plain bad luck.

They've all got their stories. A thief is not a faceless bad guy (FBG). FBGs do NOT exist outside of fiction and computer games. One would do well to remember that every human is a reflection of the world he's lived in*. So if there's more crime, what does that say about society? Crime should be punished, there's no doubt about that, but one must always bear in mind the underlying socio-economic problems that drive people to crime in the first place.

* Even fundies. Atheists and moderates, please remember this.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Cheng very bad man

A mildly diabolical thought just hit me today...

Snatch thefts are something of a problem in Kuala Lumpur, hell, in most urban areas of Malaysia today, so I was thinking... What if a sufficiently resourceful lass were to construct a small remote-controlled bomb and place it in a decoy handbag? Nothing too apocalyptic, mind you, just something with perhaps enough shebang to tear off a limb or two.

Doesn't even have to be a bomb, really, just some sort of potentially lethal trap waiting for some git to try and grab it. Spikes, blades, tazers, toxic gas, acid, whatever, just something to make whoever snatches it really, really regret it for the rest of his drastically shortened life.

What would be the legal implications of something like this? Just think - a guy snatches a bag, the "victim" heaves a sigh, presses a button and suddenly the snatch thief is no longer anybody's problem except maybe a street cleaner with a mop. Is this self-defense on the part of the victim? I mean, assuming there were some way for the victim to legally carry the Handbag of Doom around the place?

Ooh, I wish a lawyer would read this and enlighten me...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Great Wall has many faces

I came across this while perusing Edge.org. Long story short, China has refused publication of Edge.org's book What is Your Dangerous Idea? I read that book, and in all honesty, I really wouldn't term any of those ideas as dangerous, in the strictest sense of the word.

As I recall, there was one essay by some artist which wasn't so much dangerous as mind-numbingly trivial and inane. "
The Effect of Art Can’t Be Controlled or Anticipated", she said. Thanks very much indeed for that. If my eyes rolled back any further, I'd get a grand view of my own hypothalamus. And of course there were the geologists who, thanks to their unique take on time, don't see global warming as an issue, i.e. "It's ok, it'll all balance out fairly quickly in the end." Bear in mind that a geologist's idea of fast is something like continental drift of 10cm a year.

Having been educated a physicist myself, I'm a great supporter for the cause of science and reason. But reading these collections of essays from Edge.org*, I can't help but feel they betray a terrible naivete about our world. Which brings us back to China.

Pinker laments: "
Everyone says that China will be the next scientific and economic power. Is this compatible with their ongoing rejection of open debate and exploration of ideas? Is a technologically advanced society compatible with anti-intellectualism and suppression of debate? It's hard to see how China will ever compete with the West as a source of scientific and technological innovation if ideas cannot be discussed and evaluated. Or will the Internet — which can never be completely censored — and a stream of PhDs returning from the West eventually pressure them to open up?"

At first glance, I feel his pain, but one has to bear in mind: China isn't about freedom. Critics of China in the West far too often make the mistake of viewing China through the lens of individualist thinking. The freedom so glorified in the West is something that needs affluence, education (NOT indoctrination) and above all else, discipline to make it work. When resources are limited and people are plentiful, then one has to make do with collectivist thinking and carefully engineered control of the hearts and minds of the masses.

With the world's political landscape the way it is, China must move forward as a whole, or not at all. So it's not about the science. Science and innovation are secondary objectives. China is about power and they will achieve this by using any means they deem necessary to maintain the coherence of the collective. Foreign devils (myself included, actually) should always bear in mind these words, holding a very prominent place in the Chinese National Anthem (which I think is kinda catchy**) and various other patriotic songs of the People's Republic:

万众一心

Loosely translated: "Our million hearts beat as one". Hear that everyday (remember Russell's Teapot?) and you'll soon start believing it.

* I've just got my grubby paws on What Are you Optimistic About?


** But I'm Malaysian. My country's anthem isn't really an anthem. More a patriotic lullaby.

Is there something I'm missing?

I'd consider myself pretty phlegmatic* about most things, including environmentalism and human rights, that sort of thing. Not because I don't really give a shit, but because I consider these matters to be sufficiently important that in dealing with them, one's reasoning must not be tainted with emotion. And, in the greater scheme of things, I'm pretty sure those few who have the money and the power to make the decisions which will decide the fate of humanity won't be swayed by bleeding heart, Bambi-eyed, tree-hugging hippie crap.

Which is why I'm kind of in two minds about Greenpeace. On one hand, they raise valid concerns about the environment, and count many respected scientists and intellectuals among their number whose word counts for something when speaking of working towards a sustainable future, with humans as custodians, rather than parasites on our Pale Blue Dot.

And then they come along with something like this:



What kind of a statement is that, exactly? How on Earth do you expect a reasonable person to sympathize with 600 people lying buck nekkid on a glacier? 10/10 for good intentions, but seriously, how exactly are they addressing the problem?

This strikes me as kind of sad, because this is the kind of thing that undermines Greenpeace's credibility as an independent environment watchdog. The suits at the top? When they see these protests, they're NOT thinking "Ooh, I should start caring about the environment." They're thinking, "God, I hate hippies."

But far be it from me to offer criticism without at least offering something of a suggestion for improvement. Speaking as a former white-collar warrior, let me tell you something: In the 21st century, the greatest driver of human endeavour and both the source of all the opulence and all the misery in the world today comes to a little number. It's called the Profit After Tax margin.

Show the right people how present environmental policies affect this number, and show how sustainable practices can preserve this number in the long run, and the battle is good as won.

* No, I don't have a cough. Phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine and melancholic are kinda old words but I like 'em. Go see!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Carlin banzai!

"Why, why, why, why, why is it that most of the people who are against abortion are people you wouldn't wanna fuck in the first place?"

Exceedingly cool and froody comedian George Carlin died Sunday of heart failure, aged 71. In his wake he's left 23 comedy albums, 14 HBO specials and three books, winning 4 Grammy awards in the process and becoming, in his own words, "a footnote in American legal history, which I'm perversely kind of proud of". Why? See for yourself:



Though I have to say, it was his later material, particularly regarding society, religion and the US government that really caught my attention. I'll miss him.

?

Ordinarily, I don't regulate comments, seeing as pretty much all of the comments I've received have actually been pretty civil. So it was with a wee bit of bemusement that I read "david mabus"'s odd little tirade in that link he posted. Judging from the comment, I doubt very much he bothered actually reading the post, let alone watch the video. For the curious, I don't recommend following his link; It's like watching a monkey in a cage poop in his hands and fling it about in random directions. Moving on...

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Mother tongue

I mentioned before I'm Chinese. Apparently, I'm 3/4 Hokkien, but I don't actually speak Hokkien. Why? Well, not for lack of exposure, definitely. But let me tell you, there's such thing as an ugly language. I mean, a really, really butt-ugly bastard of a language. The kind of language that sends a person's sex appeal straight down the toilet. The kind of language that is impossible to use to sing a love song. Don't believe me? Watch this:



You don't have to understand Hokkien to figure that song out...

Do you have a flag?



I've always wondered a bit about Malaysia's flag. Here it is, as described by Wikipedia:

"A banner Gules, seven bars Argent; the canton Azure charged with decrescent and mullet of fourteen points Or."

What? Don't speak blazon? Oh, all right then:

And what I've been wondering about Malaysia's flag was this: Could the US sue us for this? And if not, I think they should!

28 million people in the country, fantastically rich cultural heritage and the best Malaysia could do for a flag was to nick one from someone else? A bit embarassing, no? Even the symbolism, one stripe for each state, a point on the star for each state, I mean, wtf? Almost everybody else has a cool flag that could be called symbolic of the country - Britain, Japan (very Zen!), China (needs more red), India, USA, not Indonesia, theirs is pretty rubbish, actually*, Brunei's puts Malaysia's to shame, and Singapore's is very fitting indeed for a pseudo-province of China.

Each of Malaysia's states have perfectly adequate flags. My home state of Sarawak was cursed for 15 years with a cheap copy of the Czech flag, but was replaced with something a little more swish in 1988. So why is it that the nation as a whole is lumped with a flag that looks like a blatant infringement of copyright law? I really wonder if Yanks look at the Malaysian flag and wonder if it's some sort of ex-colony or something.

So yeah, I'd really like to see Malaysia sort out a new flag. Sorry, I've no suggestions myself, 3 years working in an accounting firm has sapped my soul of all creativity, so someone else has to step up. Until then, the Malaysian flag can't inspire anything in me but a facepalm.

* And Monaco might have something to say to them about their flag...

Introduction to what I have to say about Malaysia

For those of you who don't know me, I'm Malaysian born and... I was going to say 'bred', but I'm not quite so sure that's true. Anyway, I was born in a wee town adorned with a 6 foot tall concrete cat. In the course of writing what I write in this blog, I will have a few things to say about Malaysia. And like nearly everything else I write about anything, I will have vicious, scathing remarks against Malaysia. Nothing personal.

No, I'm not proud to be Malaysian, for the same reason that I'm not proud to be Chinese. Why should one be proud of an accident of birth? Pride strikes me as something you should feel for some achievement bought in one's own sweat, blood and tears, NOT someone else's. In any case, patriotism, at its very heart, means favouring one group (those who salute a particular flag) over another group (those who salute a different flag). High time people outgrew that kind of primitive tribalism, I think.

But this is not to say I'm an anarchist! Governments are most certainly necessary to get groups of mostly simple people over large geographical areas to behave themselves. And despite all the political dicking about going on these days, in retrospect, it can actually be said that, in the larger scheme of things, Malaysia ain't doing so bad! When the ruling party cronies' corruption started to get really ugly, the opposition made its move and, surprise, surprise, suddenly the opposition has a voice! And that's a hell of a lot more than can be said for many developing nations under a dictatorship cunningly disguised as a democracy.

So long story short, I will be fairly ruthless and unrelenting in my criticism of Malaysia, not out of spite or anything like that, but for the same reason that I criticise everything else* - because we can do better.

* Besides religion, which I criticise because it's plain wrong.

Got 30 minutes to spare?

I like Dawkins. I like TED. I like atheism. I can't not post this!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Doubting Dawkins

Yeah, you read right. But I'd like to make it clear up front that I'm not doubting him on anything to do with biology. Just ain't qualified for that.

Dawkins' approach towards religion is now fairly infamous for its... bluntness. I'm inclined to agree, though I favour the more tactful approach of slowly easing the religious into the reality and beauty of our godless universe, as opposed to telling them outright that they're delusional*.

Anyway, I was watching a documentary by Al Jazeera regarding the women of Hezbollah. They interviewed a mother and daughter whose husbands had both become martyrs. Long story short, yes, it was a terribly painful experience, the war is absurd, Hezbollah takes good care of the widows of martyrs and they draw great comfort that though they're widows, at least it's an honour to be widow to a martyr.

Martyr. I think it's a hideous word. Too few vowels, for one thing. But really, do you want to be the one to tell these grieving widows that their husbands blasted themselves (and quite likely a few innocents) to oblivion for a fictitious cause? That maybe there is no God/Allah/Jehovah who gave that land to anybody in particular? That he went from loving (if a bit naive) husband to blobs of jam with the push of a button, no coming back, no better place, no crowd of virgins waiting on the other side, no smiling down at you from on high? That because of a lie, you now weep at a stone bearing his name, reciting verses from a book he died for?

But, the perversity of martyrdom aside, let's not forget the conditions which arose which led to these poor fools strapping explosives onto themselves in the first place. That is, the illegal occupation of Arab lands by Israelis who, by God-given authority, have seen fit to use any and all means (that is, force of arms, mostly) to "persuade" Arabs to scooch over. This is something that would entail digging deep into the history of Israel and Palestine and is a bit beyond the scope of this blog, so I'm going to leave a link or two that might shed some light. And if you haven't already, read some Chomsky. It's your civic duty, and you will realise that after you've read him.


* Yes, I know they are. But denial is the most predictable response to being told that your worldview is bollocks, isn't it?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Stuff I like 02

More fun from the net, well, from Youtube, anyway:

The next stage of human evolution has arisen in the realm of Tetris. I was absolutely convinced of that somewhere around 5:15. I mean, there's good, there's amazing, and then there's guys like this who just defy all description:



I love cats. This isn't to say I'm completely anti-dog, I just favour cats by a long shot. I love how they're way, way too aloof to do "fetch". I'm also a big fan of Dilbert, having encountered many incarnations of the Pointy-Haired Boss, Wally, Alice, the accounting trolls, and Catbert during my stint in white-collar land. So I was well chuffed to find this video:



Lastly, I noted with some interest that Japan is watching it's weight. Seemed a bit odd to me; I've never heard of a Japanese hambeast outside of a sumo ring! And if their gameshows are anything to go by, the average Jap is actually really energetic. So I'd like to show you one little upshot to being a hambeast from Family Guy:



Until next time, please remember, this is entertainment, not inspiration for how to traumatise your babies...

Friday, June 13, 2008

Melancholy in bullet time

I was driving down the highway one day when I had another of those bullet time moments. You know, world slows down, heightened awareness sort of thing. What brought it on was my attention being captured by the sight of a small white butterfly flapping away in front of me.

It was a pretty little thing, pristine white wings the size of postage stamps, bobbing along in that way for which, it seems, the word 'flutter' was invented. There I sat, admiring it, thinking how odd it was that a slip of the tongue would forever curse this happy insect with the name 'butterfly', as opposed to 'flutterby', which I think is far more appropriate. For me 'butterfly' conjures the image of some hick hurling a wad of dairy products through the air.

Anyway, all this was going through my head (bullet time, remember) when I was quickly brought back down to earth when the pretty little butterfly (flutterby!) very suddenly became a small splat on my windscreen. My eyebrows did raise as those two dove-white wings tumbled through the air in two seperate directions... And the world sped back up again. I was full of guilt*.

Since I'm on the subject, am I the only one who finds the term "bullet time" somewhat lacking? It's not a recent phenomenon or anything, it's been known for centuries that the human brain has a funny ability to alter one's perception of time. Anyone who's played any sport would know that. If you're not sporty, a little weed should set you straight. But my point is, using the phrase "bullet time" to describe this state of mind seems to cheapen it somehow, reducing a powerful, somewhat spiritual experience to a movie special effect. Just say the words "bullet time" and poof! the image of Keanu Reeves in shades and a big black coat doing the limbo under some 9mm pops into your head. I'm sure there's a better phrase out there. Probably in French or German. They seem to have words for everything.

* Note to self: Would like to write a little something on the sanctity of life, or lack thereof. Preferably without regressing into a fuck-PETA-and-the-ALF rant.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Quick note on Buddhism

A lot of atheists overlook Buddhism, which is fair enough, I suppose given that it's mostly the fundie adherents to the Abrahamic religions that are by far the most troublesome. That, plus Buddha was sane enough to admit to being very much mortal, and if I recall correctly, he expired of gastrointestinal troubles.


Anyway, I forget where I found this pic, possibly the RDF Facebook group:

Personally, I find it interesting to observe the parallels between Zen and the memetic theory of mind put forward by Blackmore, particularly regarding free will. Some find it depressing, I find it mind blowingly enlightening.

I totally recommend reading up on it, but do take it with a pinch of salt. Coming from a spiritual backdrop, even Zen is not safe from the taint of head-up-arse bullshit.

2 cool ways of saying the same thing

I recall from trawling the RDF forums that quite a number of comrades who were formally fundies were turned by Russell's Teapot. No, no, not the webcomic, I mean Russell's Teapot proper, stated as follows:

“If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

Short, sharp and classy. I first encountered it in Dawkins' God Delusion. Been a big fan of Russell ever since. However, this has the disadvantage of using words that are a wee bit longer than most fundies where I come from are willing to read. On top of that, rounds these parts, nobody pays attention to philosophers*.

So I was pleased as Punch to find Carl Sagan, astronomer extraordinaire, had written a wee essay saying pretty much the same thing, The Dragon in my Garage. It's a bit long, so here's a link to it. Moderate friends, don't let the URL put you off - in my experience, the best kind of geek is godless.

Both Russell's Teapot and Sagan's Dragon come down to asking the same thing: How do you know what you believe is true? There are those who would say "Because I know it, and that's that". It's like asking a man guarding a treasure chest what's in the chest. He says, "Treasure!" and you ask how he knows. He replies "It's a treasure chest, innit? I don't have to look inside to know..." And so you peep. And you find nothing. And the man's world collapses.

"Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day."

Thus spake Bertrand Russell. An atheist (or at least a rationalist) lives constantly with uncertainty, but rather than allow himself to be crippled by self-doubt, such uncertainty demands relentless intellectual vigilance. Belief must be constantly challenged. Questions must be asked. Is it still relevant? Is the basis sound?

This is the kind of thinking that forms the foundation of true knowledge. But of late, many have fallen into the trap of rationalising, of defending meaningless and empty beliefs with walls of words. We've become very good at it, hence the rise of such dubious individuals, weaklings, cowards and liars like Kent Hovind, Ben Stein, Ken Ham, Ted Haggard... The list goes on and on.

There is a difference between being the swine gnawing at the roots of the tree of Knowledge and being the hand that prunes it. My only complaint on Russell's Teapot is that it's a little long to put on a T-shirt.

*A truly hideous tragedy that will be spoken of in a later post, if I remember.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

I like pandas

I'm a fan of China, for any number of reasons, not least being its ability to drastically upset the balance of world power, as I witnessed in the murder of the US steel industry. So suffice it to say, I know who I want to lead in the medal tally this year. But it seems to me that there's something of an elephant in the room regarding the Beijing Olympics.



What's been bugging me about the Beijing Olympics is this: The mascots are kinda lame. I mean, really, Beibei, Jingjing, Huanhuan, Yingying and Nini? Gweilo friends should know by now that the names are taken from "北京欢迎你", pronounced "Beijing huan ying ni", meaning "Beijing welcomes you". Here's a detailed explanation, but what the hell are they supposed to be?? Just look at them!

Wikipedia tells us that, from L to R, they are a Chinese Sturgeon, Giant Panda, Olympic Flame, Tibetan antelope and a Swallow. Man, you tell me when's the last time you saw a green swallow... And I'm definitely not impressed by Beibei. Beibei and Nini are female, you know. You can tell, coz they're the only ones standing pigeon-toed. Don't believe me? Check the Wiki!

I mean, this is the first time the glorious People's Republic is hosting the games, whatever happened to those other cool hallmarks of Chinese culture? You know, the ones people recognise? Dragon, tiger and phoenix? Maybe that turtle thing from feng shui? I was really hoping for a dragon, myself. Who still remembers this:

古老的東方有一群人

他們全都是龍的傳人

Translated:

In the ancient East there's a bunch of people,

That bunch of people, they're descendants of the Dragon!

That's what I'm talking about. Not some damn fish. The panda I can live with, though having seen a few at the Beijing Zoo, I can't quite see them as being symbolic of athletic achievement. See for yourself:

Um.

Well...

I'm-a sign off here. Good luck to China! 中华人民共和国万岁! 世界人民大团结万岁!

Now I've seen it all...

One of my many, many pet peeves is motivational posters. You know, the ones with a photo, then some positive word in large Times New Roman, followed by a meaningless platitude in a smaller font? That having been said, they do come with an upside - parodies. If not for those awful posters, we wouldn't have those hilarious parodies from Despair.com or anywhere else, for that matter. I swear, if I still worked in Cubicleland and had to put up with those damn motivational posters, I'd quietly sneak into the office at night and replace them all with their Despair.com counterparts.

So I was on Something Awful, flipping through the Comedy Goldmine when I found a fantastic section entitled Motivational Posters for Super Villains. I absolutely, totally, completely recommend checking it out, it damn near killed me. Anyway, if you can't be arsed to peep at the link, here's one that I just had to share:


I've seen a Hello City car, handphone, exhaust pipe, assault rifle, vibrator, laptop PC, prostitute and now this. Right now, I'm feeling the urge to find myself a Hello Kitty mod for Unreal Tournament 3 and gib a few Hello Kitties with the biggest gun I can find.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Holy ****!

This article in IHT just caught my eye. I mean, not a week after that lovely article from Slovenian philosopher whose name I forget, something like this turns up and necros a completely worthless study. For those who hadn't followed the cellphone-brain cancer hoohah, here's the long story short:

- Cell phones emit non-ionizing radiation.
- Non-ionizing radiation is too weak to cause cell damage of the type that causes cancer.
- Cell phones have sodall to do with cancer.

And then this genius of a reporter (Tara Parker-Pope) comes up with:

"But researchers who have raised concerns say that just because science can't explain the mechanism doesn't mean one does not exist."

And what, pray tell, do those researchers suggest as a mechanism? Gnomes? If there's new evidence, just say so. Don't make up meaningless bullcrap to defile the name of science.

The Price of Freedom...

Is incredible stupidity. The URL says it all:

http://www.somethingawful.com/d/comedy-goldmine/more-failures-humanity.php

Irrational hatred 01

Was trawling the net as usual when I came across a reference to Katamari Damacy. Was curious, so peeped at a video or two. Now I can't get this wretched song out of my head:



... and I sincerely hope I've infected you, too >:-)

Monday, June 2, 2008

Stuff I like 01

Stumbled across some good stuff on the Net today:

xkcd - Cool sarky comic strip. With stick men! It gets a permanent link in my Fun Stuff list...

Good news! - A rare and welcome occurence in a newspaper. Ok, I know, I'm biased, but I don't feel particularly inclined to apologize for a bias in favour of science.

Origami! - I really should get round that to finishing that rose I started. Anyhoo, those of you who know me will know I fold Kawasaki Roses. And those who know me who want to learn the Rose, check out the video. It's how I learnt it. Figure this bit out, then e-mail if you need to know where to place the incisions.

And just for kicks, here's a luvly piece of 8-bit history:


Ah... The memories...

Slight shift in tone...

I've accused of being the atheist equivalent of a fundie, that is, so caught up in furthering the cause of Reason and so bent on destroying religion that I fail to see the good points, or that there are moderates out there perfectly capable of using their heads to think and still reconcile that with their faith. Admittedly, my accuser is not familiar with the ferocity of Christopher Hitchens or the intensity of Creation/Evolution "debate"*.

In scientists, religion can occur, but what you'll find is a highly compartmentalised mind, i.e. faith and scripture have absolutely no bearing whatsoever in their work, and thus they can function adequately as scientists. This is significantly more than can be said of nutter charlatans like Kent Hovind and VenomfangX, but I digress. So I'd like to turn my gaze on one outstanding moderate, not in the sciences, but in fact a political commentator and by all accounts a hero of the people and a name to remember when books are written talking about 21st century Malaysian history: Raja Petra Kamarudin, who will be RPK here, coz I'm Chinese and just don't like using long names.

For the benefit of gaijin friends, Malaysia is a relatively moderate Muslim country, and so you get all breeds here, from fundie zombies to atheists who just haven't come out yet and still go through the motions. Judging from his very, very voluminous writings, he appears to be something like 1 or 2 on the Dawkins Scale. He does quote verses from scripture, and like all moderates, he is guilty of cherrypicking the good bits, and ignoring the raving lunacy. This is fair enough, given the consequences of basing one's morality on scripture alone.

Malaysia is home to a market economy largely fueled by hydrocarbon wealth. I'm not sure I should be saying that in public. Lots of oil + Muslim + borderline useless army has attracted lots of unwanted attention from the US in the past. Anyway, that oil/LPG wealth has translated into very, very rapid development at hideous cost in terms of corruption.

Malaysia is also home to one of the last institutionally racist regimes in the world. As such, it's very fortunate indeed that RPK is Malay, otherwise he'd had quietly vanished years ago without a trace. Or maybe some traces. Malaysia is a young country, still relatively new to the cloak and dagger game, so those in power are still a bit ham-fisted in covering up their dirty laundry.

And so we're exceedingly fortunate to have a pair of eyes like RPK's, rooting out the rot and filth endemic in M'sia's government, exposing injustice with NO bias in terms of race, colour or creed. It goes both ways, mind you. When he cusses out the Malays, he usually cusses out the Chinese and Indians, too, so they don't feel left out. Ah, the love... <:-) But what particularly impresses me in his writings is the ire he directs towards Muslims. Here's an extract of one of his more recent entries: "Yes, that’s right; don’t get too impressed and awed by any Arab look-alike, Bin Ladin wannabe. They may dress like Muslims from the Arabian desert. They may talk like Muslims. They may sujud (prostrate) on the ground with their backsides pointing to the sky five times a day. They may go to Mekah twice a year whereas others go only once in their entire life. Their wives and daughters may be ‘properly’ covered with a tudung or headscarf. They may even let loose from their lips a few Arabic words from time to time. But they are not true Muslims. They are munafik and fasik Muslims.

True Muslims practice amar maaruf, nahi munkar. True Muslims treat fardu ‘ain as one aspect of Islam and fardu kifayah as an even more important aspect. This means you uphold good and oppose evil. This also means you serve your community in the name of God while sacrificing your own interest (plus, in particular, party interests) for the good of the community. This means you uphold the teachings of Prophet Muhammad by opposing racism and the Umnoputera ‘caste system’ that exists in Malaysia."

It's nice to see someone so devout having so much in common with secular humanists re: working for the greater good. And this is the kind of thing that kept me agnostic for quite a while, until decent science and reason pointed in the direction of atheism.

"Why," you ask? Why deny God when religion is clearly capable of producing upstanding individuals of solid moral fibre? A question for another time. For now, let me close by saying that I while do acknowledge and respect moderates, I will challenge their beliefs and expect mine to be challenged in return, as a matter of intellectual courtesy. And it is Reason, not Faith that give RPK his insights on M'sian politics.

Do I respect the man? Yes! Do I respect his faith? No! You tell me, is it faith or reason that leads him to pick and choose the sections of the Quran relevant to the present zeitgeist? If you say faith, why then would he choose one particular hadith over any other? And I've no doubt that if he dug deeper, through what he thinks is the core of his morality, he will find the same thing that atheists knew all along: You don't need God to be good.

* It's not a debate. It's scientists talking at air and fundie lawyers in love with the sound of their own voice.

All is not lost!

I asked on RDF yesterday how former fundies found reason, and it wasn't long before I was pointed to this link. Yea, and verily my heart, the cold lump of igneous rock that it is, was warmed greatly by what I saw there: One convert after the other, giving their testimonials on how they left delusion and found Reason.

I have to say, 2 things in particular stood out:

1) The large number of former fundies who said they had turned as a direct result of the God Delusion. This is very interesting to me. I was somewhat agnostic when I first read that book, and even now I have to say, Dawkins' lays into religion without mercy or remorse, with a ferocity in very stark contrast to the mild-mannered biologist I remember from the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture. And so I had not expected Dawkins' book to have much effect on fundies. In my experience, and no doubt the experience of others who have tried to have a conversation with fundies, fundies are very quick indeed to retreat into "lalalaIcan'thearyoulalala" mode. So the fact that God Delusion got through even to some fundies came as a very welcome surprise indeed.

2) The presence of Muslim apostates. This strikes me as especially brave, given how Islam comes down particularly heavily on apostates. So hats off and props and good luck to them.

So that's my wonderfully, fantastically goode news for the day. I'm going to be visiting that site a lot when the fundies get me down. :-D

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Settling dust

For the longest time, everything I'd known about Tibet consisted entirely of the Western media's portrayal of it, i.e. Mountainous spiritual paradise raped by communist China, exemplified by cute speccy old man living in exile. 7 years in Tibet more or less captures that image.

As I got older, read a little Chomsky and Macchiavelli, got acquainted with the scientific method, it appeared to me that something wasn't quite right, that the whole story wasn't being told. I lived in China for a year, and had the good fortune to stumble across Alai's Chen Ai Luo Ding (lit. "Settling Dust" or "When the Dust Settles"), which tells a story of Tibetan society before the Red Army came rolling in. Long story short, pre-PRC Tibet as portrayed here was a harsh, primitive world of feudalism, corruption and conflict, where life was cheap and all that spirituality was confined to an ivory tower, a palace-monastery far, far away from the realities of life on the ground.

As yet, I've kept an eye open for some reliable, independent 3rd-party information, i.e. not from the PRC, obviously, and not from newspapers of countries with an interest in smearing shit on the name of the PRC (read: the USA). So it came as a surprise to me to find >>>this article<<< by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek in International Herald Tribune. Reading it sheds much more light, I have to say, and the purpose of this entry is largely to share Zizek's article, which is deserving of a good read by anybody who would ponder the Tibet question.

In other news, if you live in Jakarta or know anyone living there, ZOMG RUUUUNNN!!!