Monday, August 31, 2009

Another year, another Merdeka day...

That's 'independence' day to you foreign devils. 31 August 1957 is when M'sia gained its independence from the British. Others may remember 31 August as the date when Princess Diana expired in a car crash 12 years ago. And of course, others still may remember this date for any number of reasons, which may or may not be recorded in the Wikipedia article on this date.

I'm no patriot, and was very quick indeed to ignore the silly nationalist propaganda that they called history textbooks in my day. I'm already hearing from my younger friends (ooh, just typing that put another grey hair on my head) that the infamous May 13 incident has been omitted from the curriculum, such is the nature of the all-corrupting cancer that is Malaysian politics. Here's hoping Malaysia's youth spends more time on Wikipedia than on those so-called textbooks, eh?

But no, I'm not here to bitch about M'sia. Not this time, at any rate. I figured that now's as good a time as any to engage in the intellectual exercise of thinking positive about Malaysia. At this point in time, this is not easy, especially with this, this and this sitting in front of me. But there are about 27 million people in this country at the time of writing, not all of which, as the papers suggest, are a bunch ignorant, avaricious, shallow-minded degenerates. Society is not collapsing and I daresay we're still a long, long way from, say, hyperinflation and trading in bags of rice for guns and ammo.

So... what's good?

Well for a start, the Constitution still actually defines Malaysia as a secular nation. It's something that's worth being positive about, never mind the fact that the Malaysian Constitution has been amended more times than in most civilised nations. Or that even our own government and mass media seems to be confused regarding when Malaysia was actually established*. Or even that articles still remain which firmly entrench Malaysia's position as one of the last racist regimes on Earth. Despite all this, Malaysia is, in theory, secular. When people tell you that Malaysia is a Muslim country, what they're actually saying is that Malaysia is a secular nation, the majority of the population of which is Muslim, and that the whole portrayal of Malaysia as a Muslim nation is there to:

a) keep the conservative (read: anal retentive) religious right** happy; and

b) help with branding Malaysia as the go-to place for Islamic banking, which is quite possibly the most ridiculous piece of mass hypocrisy of our time. Usury by any other name is still bloody usury.

So, Malaysia is actually secular. Honestly. Never mind the opinion of the tyrannical, ignorant masses, it's right there on the Constitution at this point in time. I hope.

The other good thing I managed to think up regarding Malaysia is that it's a tremendously interesting social experiment in multiculturalism. This is not to say, as the present government would try to have you believe, that it's all hunky dory and we're all getting along fine. But Malaysia is young and still looking for it's equilibrium. Unfortunately, these days, I get the impression that, like many toddlers, Malaysia will have to fall down and do itself a mischief before it really learns to stand. I really do wonder sometimes what the government has planned for when Malaysia's glorious hydrocarbon riches run dry.

But anyways, Malaysia really is a melting pot of tremendously different cultures, and most of us do actually get along, and some even make an effort to understand each other. Here, everyone knows that the best languages to cuss in are Cantonese and Hokkien!And I think Malays and Indians show tremendous forbearance in enduring the Chinese penchant for murdering every language they come into contact with. And a very, very rare few, actually take the opportunity to take a good hard look at their own culture and understand just what it is that keeps people apart. So, yes, in this respect, Malaysia really is worth keeping an eye on, in the academic anthropological sense.

I suppose Malaysians reading this may find fault, and ask: What about the food? The malls? The food? The jungles and wildlife? Especially the food?

Let me tell you something about Malaysian food: It's nothing to be proud of. I mean it. It's cheap and tasty and there's loads of variety, yes, but does any Malaysian stop to consider the cost? No, not in MYR, I mean the cost in the more far-reaching sense? That is, the cost in hygiene standards, petroleum subsidies, nutritional value and especially quality? I suppose the upshot to this is it means most Malaysians have ruff and tuff stomachs. I recall that, during my first few weeks studying Mandarin in Beijing, many of the foreign students, particularly the Japanese, had weeks of indigestion before getting use to the horrors of Chinese university canteen food. So, yeah, thanks for that, Malaysia.

And that's all the positive things I can think up about Malaysia. Yay. When reading the local papers get me down, I will come back and read this post, and remember why I don't despair at the banality of it all. Happy birthday, Malaysia.

* 1963. No, really. 1957 was the Federation of Malaya, which only covered the Malay peninsula. Only in 1963 was the bit where I was born, i.e. Sarawak (and Singapore, too!), actually included in what is now Malaysia. A minor error quite likely born of typically Malaysian sloppiness in use of language.

** Honestly, I'm quite tired of the phrase "religious right", but you can't go around calling them the religious
wrong, can you?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Armour in the right places

One of my favourite things about kendo is that it's damn near impossible to get seriously hurt like so:
That having been said, shit can still happen:

Poor devil. I for one am not impressed by white's apparent lack of concern.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

More on Trolleys

I've beeen reading Marc D. Hauser's Moral Minds lately and came across the Trolley Problem again in there. I know I've an entry somewhere on this blog on it, but some new thoughts on it popped into my head which I thought were worth recording. Besides, this is the first blog post that I'm banging out on a recently liberated wee little Vaio, so I figured this piddly little machine deserved a proper baptism under my overly large, callused fingers.

Here are the 5 variations of the Trolley Problem I'll be looking at.

Case 1 - The Simple Switch
An out of control train trolley is hurtling down a track, on which are 5 hapless victims, tied there by a mad philosopher. You happen to be in the control room, and in front of you is a swtich. Flip the switch, and the trolley will be sent off to another track, on which is tied 1 victim. Do you flip the switch or not?

Case 2 - Push the Fat Guy
As before, trolley hurtling towards 5 people. This time, instead of the control room, you're at a platform between the trolley and the 5 victims. Standing next to you is a very large man. We assume that pushing him in front of said trolley will be quite sufficient to stop the trolley and save the 5. Do you push the the Fat Guy?

Case 3 - Loop and Fat Guy
Again, trolley and 5 victims. This time, you've got access to a switch, and flipping it will send it off to a loop of track where it comes back and squishes the 5 victims anyway. What's the bloody point of that, you ask? As the heading suggests, there's a fat guy on the loop, who is, of course, large enough to halt the trolley. Flip the switch?

Case 4 -Loop and Boulder
Same as case 3, but this time, instead of a conveniently placed fat guy, we have a boulder. BUT there happens to be some poor sap, not necessarily fat, standing in front of said boulder. Flip swtich, off goes the trolley, into the boulder and turning one hapless victim into jam in the process. Oh, well. Flip the switch?

Note: If, like myself, you are a truly cold-blooded utilitarian with a heart of igneous rock, you may not immediately the difference between cases 3 and 4. It was only on reading Moral Minds that the difference was made clear to me. Basically, in case 3, you are consciously using a Fat Guy as the means to save the 5 lives. In case 4, the guy in front of the boulder just happens to have the crap luck of being there. In 3 you are wilfully killing someone to save 5. In 4, he's collateral damage. Geddit?

Case 5 - Organ Donor
This time, the problem is set inside a hospital. You're a doctor and you've got 5 patients, each of whom are in dire need of various organ transplants. And who should walk in but a random hiker who just happens to have lovely, healthly organs ripe for the picking? Assume, of course, that harvesting the hiker's organs guarantees survival of the 5 patients. So... slice and dice?

The first 4 cases were covered in Moral Minds, the last is one I remembered from a Wikipedia article on the Trolley problem. More often than not, the usual answers to the above cases of the Trolley Problem are as follows:

Case 1 - Yes, flip the switch.
Case 2 - No, don't push Fat Guy
Case 3 - No, don't flip the switch. (About 60% of the time, so I hear)
Case 4 - Yes, flip the switch. (This can be alittle uncertain, depending on the answer to Case 3.)
Case 5 - Hell, no, don't dissect the hiker! It's icky!

Considering the similarities of the 5 cases, the divide in the distributions of the answers strikes me as interesting. Do nothing, 5 die. Do something, 1 dies. Case 1 is almost invariably answered 'Yes'* on the simple irrefutable grounds that, assuming no knowledge of the vicims identities, 5 is more than 1, so tough luck to the 1. They say this with such certainty, then funnily enough, they balk when faced with Case 5.

I suppose Case 5 as a certain element of grey about it. Faced with such a situation, our minds are drawn to the uncertainties of surgery. Are the diagnoses of the 5 patients really correct? Can the hiker's organs be extracted flawlessly? Can they implanted with no complications? What if someone finds out and the hospital gets in trouble for it, denying access to medical help for hundreds more? Even with all these doubts addressed by idealizing assumptions, rare indeed is the person who unflinchingly says, 'Well, tough luck for the hiker. 5 is more than 1.' In my experience, when I present the 5 Cases in person, whoever I'm asking will say 'No', and then comes an interesting display of mental gymnastics as they try to justify their position.

Anyway, I'm not here to natter on about my justifications for the answers that pop in my head. What I wanted to bring up were some subsequent questions to the above 5 cases. For instance, what if all the lives being weighed against each other were replaced, by animals, say? By chickens, cows, cats, penguins, whatever? I'm thinking that, in most minds, the 5 cases all simply become a case of 5 is more than 1, so bye-bye to the 1. In fact, if Case 5 becomes all about animals, anoter question arises on whether it's even worth expending such effort to save the lives of animals in such an elaborate fashion in the first place!

This led me to another iteration, much in the same vein as the Philosopher's Cyborg** - what if the lives in the 5 Cases were replaced with robots? Again, it becomes simple mathematics. 5 is more than 1. But what if those robots were androids, each with a unique accumulation of many years of memories sitting inside a processor so absurdly advanced that there is no way whatsoever of replicating said memories? Is it still simple math? What is the difference between these androids and the humans in the original 5 Cases? What if these androids are even older, each a perfect repository of hundreds of years of accumulated memories?

In my eyes, every variation of the 5 cases, assuming no knowledge of the identities of those whose lives are being weighed, is a simple case of 5 is more than 1. Apart from the practical considerations of Case 5, i.e. the possibility of some sort of failure at some stage of trying to save the 5, there doesn't seem to be any logical reason to value 1 over 5.

But then again, this is a philosopher's question. I find the single most important lesson I've learnt about philosophy is that while philosophy teaches us to ask very important questions, these days, it offers no answers. Answers come from science, and I'm still only halfway through Hauser's exceedingly interesting book.

* And to those I've encountered who answer 'No, I wan't nothing to do with making such a choice!', seriously, you are spineless below contempt.

**I think I wrote about it somewhere earlier, though I didn't call it that at the time. There will be a post on it shortly, 'onest, guv.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Connecting the wrong dots

Saw a picture in the paper of a PETA activist in India dressed in a dog outfit giving a talk on spaying/neutering one's pets. On a blackboard was written in large letters:

Animal + Birth + Control = HAPPY DOGS
It's time to sterilize all dogs!

And so the following came unbidden to my mind:

Human + Birth + Control = HAPPY PEOPLE
It's time to sterilize all people!

This has nothing to do with the fact that my young nephews have come to visit for a few weeks, honest. Well, maybe just a little. Ahem.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Catharsis by kirikaeshi

Right, to make up for the previous post's fail, here's a vid of the 55th All-Japan Kendo Championship showing the closest thing I've ever seen to a perfect strike in a kendo tourney:

I wouldn't bother past 0:30. After red (Hiromitsu Sato) got that singularly stunning point, he spent the rest of the match being cheeky and turtling and making sure white (RyoichinUchimura) didn't touch him.

As per this year's New Year Resolutions, I've been attending kendo with renewed vigour and especially relishing the Wednesday sessions, where I will come back almost invariably with bruises on my hip, forearm and sometimes head, a hoarse voice and the satisfaction of inching ever closer to Shodan. Beer tastes really, really good after kendo. It's what I tell myself, towards the last stages of a class, when we engage in freestyle training against the senseis. Not "Gotta be stronger, better, faster... Must defeat everyone!" or similar silliness out of some children's anime. Just "Earn your b33r, you bastard." Those are the words that push me past the previous week's limits, that hurl me headlong into crossing swords against sensei who move so fast and hit so hard they leave bruises on my wrist in the shape of my gauntlets.

I don't think I'd be exaggerating to say that I get a bigger rush out of kendo than anything I've ever, ever done. I've dabbled in Taekwondo, Wingchun, Taijiquan, Baguazhang and reached a reasonable standard in Capoeira. Yes, dabbled, never got a black belt or anything like that, just picked up a wee bit of the movements and theory. But I reached the rank of verde in Capoeira under the happy and cool guidance of Grupo Beribazu, which basically meant I was one rank away from being officially allowed to teach under the supervision of another mestre. But none of these ever gave the same sense of release as donning my armour.

Wearing that armour, we all have the same face, with little in the way of distinguishing features - a nicer sword, a slightyly shinier breastplate maybe. But not much beyond our name tags:

Haruka adding some personal touches to my zekken (name tag).

The point is, behind those duralumin bars, there is a sense of being allowed to be someone else, to drop your inhibitions and throw yourself into training with an insane ferocity you'd never dream of mustering outside the dojo.

Behind that armour, there is no fear of hurting or being hurt (bruises don't count), despite the knowledge that every solid strike of a shinai easily translates into a killing blow with a live blade. Another inhibition dropped. The devil inside revels in his moment of freedom. His exhilaration is every blast of your kiai, the twitch of your shinai, he drinks in the satisfaction of each precisely placed blow reverberating through your fingertips.

And when the class ends and helmets are taken off, everyone is a human with a face again, sweaty smiles and polite bows and rigid dojo etiquette. What goes on behind those smiling faces? If they're anything like me, you'd hear something like "W00t! I totally killed Kasahara-san today! Ok, he killed me 5 times before I caught him a good one on his hand, but w00t! Right, where's that b33r..."

In my readings, I've come to the conclusion that for all our big buildings, swish clothes and fancy gadgetry, we are still animals. By which I mean that in each of us is the capacity for great savagery and hate and cruelty and the like. You don't have to look very far to find it. As such, I'm all for taking this monster that lives inside us, then understanding it and, most importantly, controlling it. Not supressing it completely, mind you, that just leads to it leaking out in inconvenient moments, like an epic case of the runs. It should be let out to play. Of course, martial arts aren't the only way to achieve such release, but that having been said, I've yet to encounter any method for indulging one's inner demons as constructive as the martial arts. And among the martial arts I've sampled, I've yet to encounter a release so complete as in kendo.

Some may argue that the armour inhibits you somewhat, that it's a crutch. I think not. I think behind the anonymity of the helmet, we are free to unleash a side of ourselves that usually remains stifled for most of our lives. And in taking the monster inside and taming it, we understand that much more of ourselves, and the monsters inside everyone. This is why no matter how strong my opponent or no matter how hopelessly outclassed I am in a duel, I do not care. The physical part of the duel is not truly the point of kendo.

Before one puts on one's helmet, there's a cloth called a tenugui that you have to wrap round your head, to absorb the sweat and some of the shock of getting hit over the head with a shinai. On it is written a little slogan expressing some key concept of kendo, like 無心 (mushin - empty heart/mind), 不動心 (fudoushin - the unmoving heart/mind), the Heart Sutra or some such. One of the things that drew me to kendo was a popular phrase that turns up quite often on tenugui, and adorns my first one: 交剣知愛. Ko ken chi ai. Roughly translated, it comes out as "Cross swords, know love".

Well, these are the ramblings of a 5th kyu kendoka who thinks too much. It takes at least 10,000 strokes of the shinai to build up the technique necessary to be worthy of wearing armour. I cannot begin to guess how many thousands more I must give and recieve before I can say I'm shodan, let alone how many more before I bear 2 swords into kata practice. I expect when I do, I'll come back to these words after a class, beer in hand and have a good laugh.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Kung fu movie audition epic fails

Yep... Continuing in the same vein, here's the Worst Fight Scene Ever as claimed on Youtube:

I never did like Captain Kirk. Anyway, what in blazes is the point of fighting something you can escape from by walking briskly?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Gotta blog, gotta blog, gotta blog!

Right, it's been WAY too long since I've been here. No, I've no excuse. I've been banging away at my book, eating moar information, getting murdered by overenthusiastic Japanese swordsmen at kendo, butlering for my 2 kitties and playing far more Poxnora* than I'd care to admit, but really, I know I had time to blog, and I blatantly didn't. I am a bad person. For what it's worth, during this time, the short little posts that would usually be classified as 'fun stuff' have all ended up on my Facebook wall.

Anyway, I was thinking about a few things lately, and I'll bung a couple notes here to come back to later. Yes, I know, ardent followers of this blog (both of you) will know that when I say I'll come back to something later, "later" can mean any time between 3 days and the End of Time. But bear with me, there's lotsa stuff here, and I'll get back to some of it at some point.

Susan Blackmore's Conversations on Consciousness, pg 157, paragraph 4, Thomas Metzinger wonders: "Can science offer anything... to keep mass societies coherent after all these metaphysical ideas (in God or psychoanalysis or other substitute religions like that) have vanished, not only in professional philosophers and scientists, but in ordinary people as well?" On the front of fecundity, science, that is, the empirical mindset, has always been memetically weak seeing as it often flies in the face of instinct and takes a considerable amount of mental effort and discipline, not to mention honesty to wield. This level of intellectual prowess is not something that is accessible to the vast majority of humanity, hence the place that convenient myths (i.e. God) occupy in their minds. How can science realistically fill the gap? This leads me to my next horrible little demon haunting me...

The Malthusian nightmare is inevitable. Humans will eventually breed too much to the point that scarcity becomes enough of an issue for major global conflict to erupt. As things are, humans consume more than is sustainable. This wouldn't be so much of a problem, were it not for certain things that make the problem intractable, such as:-

Population:- Seriously, every other issue humans face is secondary to this one. If humans do not reach a stable equilibrium with our environment and our numbers, and hence consumption, continue to grow, we are fuct.

Capitalism:- This isn't so much a problem in and of itself, but what it does, is magnify the effects of everything we do. Between banks, fractional reserve systems and derivatives, insane amounts of money are created out of nothing, yet drive tremendous numbers of people to consume more.

Ignorance:- If I recall correctly, it was Marcus Aurelius who said "It is good to frequently consider the connectedness of all things" or words to that effect. Can't be arsed to look it up right now. The thing is, people don't. No really, they don't. Who the hell looks at an iPhone and considers for one moment what it really takes to manufacture such a device? The oil extracted to produce the polymers of its casing? The various mines dotting the globe digging up the rare metals forming the cunning alloys in the circuitry? The resources spent training the engineers who designed such a piece of technological wizardry? I confess, I never really thought much about it either, until I saw something on BBC News about this student who undertook a project to built a toaster from scratch, starting with going up to a British mine and asking for some iron ore. I'm not sure if he successfully built said toaster, but it made me think long and hard about just how far our desire for stylish and clever gadgetry reaches.

I was sitting in a traffic jam while it rained today. It had been hazy for some weeks (thanks a lot, Indonesia) and I was thinking how someone with a more poetic soul than mine might anthropomorophize the whole affair and say something about the rain washing away the dirt and grime of KL, cleansing, purifying, coming down ever so hard because the filth runs so very, very deep in Malaysia. Then somewhere in my head, a switch flicked on, and this world fell apart, replaced by one in which the rain simply was. It was the direct result of the confluence of temperature, humidity and air pressure, precipitation forming massive tropical raindrops from the vapour of some distant ocean or other, maybe some of it from the Straits of Malacca, probably beyond, gathered here in the rain shadow of the mountain range making up the spine of Peninsular Malaysia. It comes and falls without a will or intent, but simply because that is what it does. It is one of innumerable unwavering parts of the beautiful machine that is the universe, as am I, sitting in my car, watching the rain.

Anyway, there you have it, a wee handful of the stuff infesting my brain and scrawled in various languages on my notebooks. Pen and paper, mind you. I refer to the doohickey I type on as a laptop and the paper things I scribble on as notebooks. Tsk. I just read through this post again and now I don't know how to classify it. So I won't. More to come later, hopefully a bit more organized.

* But I still suck...