Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Nuclear Option.

There’s been talk recently about the potential closure of Hazelwood Power Station, one of the country’s oldest power stations and its worst polluting relative to the amount of energy generated. The Greens have said that they want it simply shut down, as soon as possible, and with the way things are looking they may win the balance of power in the Victorian legislature next month. Labor has paid lip service to the idea, suggesting reducing Hazelwood’s load. Right-wing commentators have suggested that if the Greens do manage to shut it down, the electorates that voted for them should have their power supply cut off in order to absorb the loss of power. This is no more than I’d expect from them, but their rhetoric does raise the question of where we’d get our power from; Hazelwood provides a quarter of the state’s power. My house has solar panels on the roof, but not everyone can afford to install them, even with the government’s rebates, even given the fact that they pay for themselves both in savings and in revenue from power sold back into the grid.

Frustratingly, though, the one party that is actually taking a stand on global warming by demanding that Hazelwood be shut down, is also flat-out terrified of the only plausible way of doing so without adversely affecting our supply of power in the short- to medium-term: nuclear power. While nuclear fuel is not technically a renewable resource, Australia’s uranium supplies would last a lot longer than coal, and more importantly nuclear power doesn’t release colossal amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere the way coal (especially brown coal, which is mined and burned at Hazelwood) does. Solar power, even in this sunburnt country, is too capricious to use without enormous storage batteries, which we don’t have and which have never been tried on anything like the scale required. Wind power has many of the same problems. Ultimately, of course, a migration to renewables must take place, but nuclear can give us a lot of the breathing room we need to make this possible.

Nuclear power is far safer than coal. While nuclear accidents have the potential to be dramatic and catastrophic, coal power kills far more people — not just in absolute terms, but per unit of energy produced. There are ways of producing nuclear power that do not produce waste that must be managed for millions of years. There are ways of producing nuclear power without any risk of weapons-grade material going “missing”, because no such material is involved in their use. There are ways of producing nuclear power that actually produce more nuclear fuel as a byproduct. There are ways of producing nuclear power that use thorium as a fuel, which is safer, more easily obtained and handled and more plentiful than uranium.

Of course great care must be taken. But why are we so terrified of something that could replace all the coal-fired stations in the country in a matter of not decades but years?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Christianity: the Great Irony.

Almost from the very beginning, Jesus’ ideas were hijacked. The metaphysics and mythology that go along with his story were elevated at the expense of the man and his message. Whether this was deliberate or accidental, the advantage of this as a means of control for the church is clearly seen. When one considers the nature of his actual teachings, which were extremely anti-authority, pro-individual, anti-wealth, and pro-charity, the irony is most amusing.

You can quote Jesus in support of a lot of ideals, from libertarianism to socialism to monarchy. This isn’t to say he would support them himself, merely that he can be quoted in favour of them. But ceremony, submissiveness and conspicuous consumption, three things that have marked the Catholic Church for roughly 1500 years and the American Protestant churches for most of their existence, are not among them.

Some Christians have recently got wise to this, at least in theory. But the irony has remained, and progressive Christian culture today resembles nothing so much as the followers of Brian in Monty Python’s Life of Brian — the words are “you are all individuals, and you should think for yourselves”, but the message is still “follow our particular interpretations and additions to what this book says, or else”. After all, you need to at least be seen to take account of what the Bible says if you’re claiming to follow it, but you also need to hang onto your own authority. And even if it isn’t chic to threaten apostates with hellfire or damnation, at least in the more mainstream churches, that threat is still on the books, so to speak — and the sense of community helps keep the flock in check, too.

So this post goes out to every Christian whose views don’t align with his church’s. If your church preaches creationism and you accept science, or if it practices homophobia and you don’t, or if it does anything at all with which you don’t actually agree, you degrade yourself by belonging to it. You have two options. The first, and probably better if there are others who are in the same situation, is to bring up your issues and change the church’s attitude from the inside to more accurately reflect those of its members. The other is to reject it and strike out on your own. Remember that that’s why Protestantism existed in the first place — people sticking to their principles rather than going along with the whims of authority. Of course, this applies not only to Christianity — that’s just the faith I’m most familiar with.

I have no idea what Jesus would be like if he were around today. But I very much doubt that he would be a churchgoer, or an affiliated Christian at all.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Keeping the Bastards Honest.

Has nobody ever tried suing a politician for reneging on an election promise?

Of course, they’re very good at weaseling their way out of such situations. It’s a politician’s job to be popular, to be convincing, and to make excuses. It’s easy to cost a project at ten million when you’re in opposition, and then “realise” that your figures were off by an order of magnitude once you get elected to implement it. You won’t be voted out of office for another few years yet. The populace will have forgotten your broken promises by the time the next election rolls around. They’ll know that you probably did break some promises, but so did the other guy. It is, in many depressing ways, a race to the bottom.

It may well be that we’ve left it too late to do anything about it now, certainly in our current system. We all get offended when a politician backs down on a promise we hoped they’d keep, but nobody’s surprised at any of it. A court could easily rule that election promises are not binding contracts for the very reason that nobody expects them to be honoured. While this would break advertising standards and violate common decency, it would be a case of the law recognising that which already de facto exists.

On the other hand, it may not be too late. If I’m offered a deal, and I honour my end of the bargain, I expect the other party’s end to be honoured too, and legally it shouldn’t make any difference who the other party is. The only problem here is that none of the parties I support will ever form government, at least in the near future, and I don’t know how one could claim to have honoured one’s end of the bargain with a major party without having preferenced it first. Might there be any way that the electorate as a whole, as represented by someone appointed for the purpose, could do it?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

This Is What Happens When You Buy From The Lowest Bidder.

A series of emails regarding the train-wreck that is Melbourne’s public transport ticketing system (and that I’m sure we all hope will remain a figurative train-wreck only).

From: myki Customer Care
To: Oolon Colluphid
Date: 20 October 2010

Dear Oolon,

Due to a recent auto top up failure of $10.00 on your myki (card number ███████), your myki has been blocked. [Oops. I ran kinda low in my debit account. No big deal, I'll just top up manually.] We require your account to be topped up with this amount and then your myki be returned in order for us to re-activate your myki. [What?] Please be advised that we are unable to electronically unblock your myki after receiving your online payment. In the future, we hope to have this functionality to unblock a myki electronically. [But you have the functionality to block one?]

The $10.00 was added to your myki balance on the 16/10/10, but we were unable to deduct this payment from your credit card. [Seriously? Who thought it would be a good idea to credit my account before payment was cleared? And did it seriously not occur to anyone to, I don’t know, simply cancel the erroneous credit even if the system was that stupid?] After we have returned your myki, unblocked, please update your credit card details for Auto top up if they have changed.

You can make the $10.00 credit card payment on your website account. Just go to” Manage my card” and you will see the Debt Settlement page, from there you just follow the prompts.

Please post your myki to the following address, to ensure quick return of your myki. A stamp is not required, as this is a reply paid post box.

myki Customer Care
Reply Paid ███

We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.

myki — it’s your key. [Not if you just changed the locks on me it isn't.]


myki Customer Care Team

From: myki Customer Care
To: Oolon Colluphid
Date: 21 October 2010

Dear Oolon,

Thank you for settling the debt resulting from a recent auto top up failure.

You may be unaware, that we are unable to electronically unblock your myki after receiving your online payment. [You emailed me yesterday to tell me so. I admit that someone with a stronger allergy to bullshit than mine might have taken 24 hours to process the mindbuggering stupidity involved here, but either way reminding me isn’t going to help.] In the future, we hope to have this functionality to unblock a myki electronically.

We aim to return your myki to you unblocked as soon as possible. Please post your myki to the following address. There is no need for a stamp as this is a reply paid post box.

myki Customer Care
Reply Paid ███

We thank you for your patience and cooperation regarding this matter.


myki Customer Care Team

From: Oolon Colluphid
To: myki Customer Care
Date: 21 October 2010

I was not informed that my myki would be blocked should an electronic payment fail to go through, nor of this fault in the system that requires me to post it in, when I bought my myki. For that matter, I find it quite implausible that it can be blocked remotely but not unblocked in the same manner. I will find it very inconvenient to be without the card even if it were returned in the post the day after I send it, and I've been informed by a friend that this happened to him and his myki was not returned for several weeks. I think you appreciate that I would rather not take that chance. If you are genuinely unable to unblock my card remotely, I request that you send me a replacement card instead.

I appreciate your prompt reply.


Anyone else think this is as ridiculous as I do? It’s the 21st century, guys. Get on the ball.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


Posting this from my phone, as I haven't had access to a computer for the last couple of days. I have a post planned for today but it's going to have to go up tomorrow. See you all then!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Parent Licence: Update.

Just a short entry today, because I’m running a little late, but I read these articles this morning and thought I’d share. It could be that we’re heading toward implementing the Parent Licence sooner than I could have thought possible.

The group Mr Geschke refers to is known as Project Prevention, which deals with drug addicts. I read an article on the BBC a few days ago about its introduction in the UK after years of operation in the USA; unfortunately I can’t find the link now.

Of course, the proponents of these ideas are being publicly derided for them — the founder of Project Prevention has been labelled a Nazi, and it looks like Geschke’s facing similar slurs, not helped by his Germanic surname — but it’s a start. It’s also, I believe, largely a matter of PR: people don’t want to be seen to support such a radical, authoritarian proposal. In private, the majority of people I’ve spoken to have voiced cautious or even more commonly enthusiastic support of the idea.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Heaven and Hell.

Contention: That heaven and hell cannot coëxist in the same universe.

This argument draws largely on the same premises as the concept of “degrees of separation”. Take the saying “hell is other people” and turn it on its head. It is reasonable to expect that most people would not be content in heaven unless all their closest friends were there with them. (It doesn't matter if they don't arrive straightaway - they have their earthly lives to live out first, and some theologies hold that no matter when you die, everyone enters heaven at the same time because heavenly ‘time’ is different from earthly time — this also has the side-effect of allowing God omniscience without denying human free will. It also doesn’t matter exactly what your definitions of heaven and hell are, so long as they fit the overall category of “places of utter reward and punishment where you go depending on how you’ve lived in life”.)

Now, even assuming each and every one of those friends deserve to be in heaven too, they will want all their friends with them too. We can assume the heavenly deserts of every friend to a certain small number of iterations, if we began with a very saintly, intelligent and discriminating person to begin with - but the process goes on forever and our saintly person is a friend of a friend of a friend of (to the whatever power) someone who by the moral standards of even the most lenient judging God does not deserve a place in heaven, if the last judgment is to be at all meaningful. I mean, what sort of test is it where you are guaranteed to pass?

And if you were sent to hell, the exact same argument applies. So there could be heaven (if God is blindly kind, and doesn’t judge us after all), or hell (if God is sadistic and evil and everything we’ve been told he’s not). But there doesn’t seem to be any reason for either of them to exist any more.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Problem of Freedom.

I’d like to discuss what freedom really means. Not in terms of political freedom, or freedom from slavery, or anything so obviously good. My issue here is with free software, and one piece of it in particular: Android.

Android is quite a solid OS, from what I can tell. I haven’t used it, so I can’t comment on the user experience, but (as I’ll get to in a little bit) even if I had there’s a lot I couldn’t tell you about that anyway.

Partly in response to the closed, controlled situation of iOS, and partly due to Google’s own philosophy, Android’s design and marketing both emphasise its status as free software. iOS is available on a sum total of three devices, all sold by Apple. It can access the open web, but the only way to get native apps for it is also from Apple, which vets and classifies every app submitted. Android is both free as in speech, for anyone to modify as they wish, and free as in beer, able to be installed on any phone (or any device, for that matter) without paying a cent to Google. Google intends to make money by selling ads on Android devices.

This sort of model works fairly well for Linux on the desktop, although it does have some of the same problems Android does. Nevertheless, almost every copy of Linux in use is installed and customised by the end user, which fits its niche as an OS for hobbyists, software libertarians, and other assorted nerds. This isn’t the case with Android, which comes preinstalled and pre-customised on the phone you buy, and is intended for a much broader consumer market.

One problems that desktop Linux and Android share is platform fragmentation, although it’s much less of an issue for Linux. There are four different “core” versions of Android floating around: 1.5, 1.6, 2.1 and 2.2. This wouldn’t be a problem in itself, if users could actually upgrade to the latest version of the OS. There’s no hardware-based reason they shouldn’t be able to in most cases — even the oldest Android phones are fast enough to run at least the core features of Android 2.2. The actual reason you can’t upgrade most Android phones is twofold.

The first reason is vendor-side customisation: both the manufacturer of your phone and the network you’re signed to have modified the OS so as to have a unique UI, access to network-specific features, and sometimes to preinstall apps. These modifications have to be worked into the updated OS before it can run on your phone. (This vendor-side customisation is also problematic because it means that, compared to other mobile OSes, there’s a lot less consistency and familiarity between devices.)

The second is that Google doesn’t take responsibility for distributing software updates, so it falls to the manufacturers and carriers, who are much more interested in selling you a new phone with 2.2 on it than adding value to your old one. (Microsoft’s mobile OS has this same problem — and Windows Mobile 7 isn’t even backward-compatible with apps for earlier versions.) Result: no updates for you.

The biggest issue, though, is with the intransitivity of Android’s much-touted freedom. The idea is you can install whatever you like on the OS: it’s completely unregulated. But think about the effects of this. There are very few quality commercial apps for the platform, because as soon as one appears it is effortlessly pirated. You’re not free to sell an Android app, because others are free to steal it. On top of this, you have no guarantee of any kind whatsoever as regards the apps you download. The result is that millions of people have had their personal information stolen, or their phones infected with viruses.

Vendors — manufacturers and especially carriers — are free to modify the OS as they see fit. The result is that they in their turn lock it down, giving you a phone that’s less free than an iPhone or a BlackBerry. They remove the Android Market and instead install their own app store, which invariably has fewer, lousier apps at monopoly prices. They preload their own apps — adware, music stores, etc. — and make them impossible to remove or replace with an alternative. In America, the Galaxy S ships with Google search disabled in favour of Microsoft’s Bing search. You can’t even choose to use Google search on this phone, despite the fact that it’s running Google’s OS!

Freedom is all very well, but is the sort of freedom Android offers of any real use to the consumer? And even if it is, and even if it isn’t snuffed out by meddling carriers and handset makers, is it worth dealing with the rampant piracy and malware inherent in the system?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

In Defence of Choice.

What gives us the right, as one commenter on Tuesday put it, to “snuff out a human life”? What gives a woman the right to abort a pregnancy?

The same basis that gives her the right to contraception. Or, to take an example that even the Catholics reading this can’t consider controversial, the basis that gives a married woman the right to have a natural menstrual cycle without conceiving.

She has the right to sovereignty over her own body, and she has no obligation to bring any given potential future person into actual existence. This right is not absolute — she may not use her body to harm another, of course, and (as I’ve explained elsewhere) I don’t believe she has the right to create a child for whom she is unable to adequately care, even if there is no direct harm involved.

Notice that I say “potential future person”. This is all that an embryo is and has: potential. It is potential in the same way that an ovum or a sperm cell is potential. It is defensible to say that, in the general case, we have an obligation to create some future persons; but that is an obligation that we hold to ourselves, because we desire the survival of our species; remove that desire, and the obligation is removed — and even though it does exist, it doesn’t translate to an obligation to procreate in any specific case. An embryo may become a person, given the right (fairly specific) conditions; but so may an ovum — it’s just one step earlier in the chain. Yes, it’s human life in the literal sense — it’s alive and it’s genetically human — but the morally relevant factor is not whether it is alive but whether it is a person, and without a functioning nervous system it’s no more a person than it is a telephone. If we create human tissue in the lab, we don’t give it moral rights. Biological independence also plays a role — a fœtus has the sort of relationship with its mother that in interspecies cases is called parasitism, and the only reason we don’t always treat it as such is because other motives, such as the desire to actually have a child, come into play.

Ultimately though, practical arguments can be brought to bear. Banning abortion doesn’t stop it from happening, any more than Prohibition stopped people drinking or abstinence education stops them shagging. It just drives it underground, making it far less safe as a procedure in its own right and also making it harder for people to find unbiased, factual information. At the end of the day, the decision to criminalise abortion is not a case of deciding between an abortion and a baby. It’s a case of deciding between a competent doctor in a sterile hospital, or a criminal in a back alley with a dirty coathanger.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

My Choice Is No Crime: an important message.

My choice is no crime

It's hard to believe this is happening in Australia. This week, a young couple from Cairns goes on criminal trial for attempting to have an abortion.

Teagan was just 19 years old when she was charged under archaic, 111-year-old laws that classify abortion as a criminal “offence against morality” in the same league as bestiality and incest. They have lain dormant for over a century — until now. If found guilty, she faces up to 7 years imprisonment, and her parter Sergie, 22, could spend 3 years in jail for assisting her.

How can this happen in Australia? Because in Queensland, and in other states, abortion is still illegal in the criminal code. And despite the fact that 90% of Australians believe early-term abortions should be legal, an extreme minority has our politicians scared into inaction.

An anti-choice organisation has organised a petition in defence of these archaic laws, with over 6,000 signatures. The opposing petition, calling for the laws to be scrapped, has less then 3,000. Help fix that right now, so that no politician has an excuse for inaction:

As a result of this case, public hospitals in Queensland have started refusing abortions — even to women whose pregnancy is due to sexual assault. Doctors fear criminal prosecution and up to 14 years imprisonment for providing advice and treatment, leaving young couples in impossible situations.

How on earth could this happen in Australia? The Queensland Parliament has failed to act, because MPs have been flooded with phone calls and emails in support of these archaic laws. Some extreme anti-choice activists have even thrown flaming molotov cocktails at Teagan and Sergie's house. We can't stand for this in Australia.

Please add your name to the national petition for choice today, and forward it to friends and family:

Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, said she would support a bill to repeal the laws — but won't introduce one herself. She says there isn't enough support — and her colleagues in Parliament have been silent so far.

We can't let politicians hide behind a thin facade of opposition put up by extreme anti-choice activists. As a national movement of 380,000 strong, let's remove their excuse today with a huge national petition to repeal these archaic laws. Please add your name and forward this to friends before the petition is printed in huge newspaper ads later this week.

Text and image courtesy GetUp!. My own commentary to follow on Thursday.

Good God.

Contention: That we are both morally superior to and much more powerful than any God who is completely and only good — no matter what your definition of good happens to be.

Theism tends to take the free will path as opposed to the fatalist path; for if it is fatalist, it concludes that we are doomed to our fate by God and that any evil we perform or suffer is his fault. If we have free will, however, theology attempts to explain precisely why. Some have fared better than others; the strongest position, to my mind, is the one espoused by J. L. Mackie. It basically holds that there is no merit in being good if one cannot do otherwise. If a man is not free to do evil, ought he be rewarded for doing good? After all, he had no choice in the matter, especially if you take the common Christian angle that evil is the defiance of goodness, only existing in reaction to it. One might as well reward an arrow for hitting its target. So we have free will, and thus the capacity for evil, so that our good deeds may have meaning and merit. Free will (or per se freedom if you prefer) becomes, in a way, the ultimate good.*

So far, so hoopy. But then we run into a problem. God, by his very nature, cannot do evil. He is completely and only good, isn't he? (This argument of course does not apply to gods who might not have this particular characteristic, but there are many who do.) You could argue that the past is not a reliable indicator of the future, that just because God happened to do the ‘right thing’ the last 10 million times doesn't mean he necessarily will next time, does it? But many want to believe in a God who is ‘good’ in and of his very nature, rather than a Supreme Creator who merely happens to be good so far. (Of course, if you take most of the stories told about him, the moral dissonance between his behaviour and what we now consider to be good does you no favours if you want to hold this belief.)

However, we have already established, in trying to explain why God would give us free will, that a being that is good of its very nature does not possess a free will. God is therefore inferior to us, because we have the power of choice, and so our acts, when they are good, are much more so than the same acts were they to be performed by God.

One might pick out that I claimed freedom as the ultimate good (because it is that which gives all other goodness meaning) and choose to use this in his definition of God, so that “completely and only good” becomes “completely (and only) free”. That seems a lot more attractive; but it’s a case of equivocation, and it winds up making God no less capable of or inclined to malice than anyone else.

*Even as an atheist I find this argument useful to my own worldview, but in the opposite direction. Rather than deciding that I have free will because otherwise my actions are morally meaningless, I decide that my actions are meaningful because I have the freedom to do so. Even on fatalism this holds true, because even on fatalism I make my own meaning; I was merely fated to do it, and I ought to act as though I am free because that way I am never responsible for making the wrong choice.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Epistemic Weight and the Excluded Middle.

or, The Joy of Double Negatives.

I would like to discuss a few mistakes of understanding that are often made as regards atheism, agnosticism and the epistemic basis for both.

To affirm any form of theism is to make what is called a positive claim: to believe that a certain thing is, and that it is a particular way. To deny theism is to make a negative claim: to not believe that a certain thing is, or is a particular way. We hold a lot more negative beliefs — I tend to prefer the term negative assumptions, as they are the epistemic default: implicit, innumerable and are not generally held with much passion or thought — than positive ones. We intuitively consider it the responsibility of the person making the positive claim to have reasons for it, because the negative claim is the default and because it is defined in such a way as not to need specific reasons in its favour.

Negative claims are often impossible to prove evidentially, unless they have definable, measurable positive consequences; and unless they are logical tautologies (such as "there are no blue things that are not blue") they are also impossible to prove logically: one can only hope to disprove them. However, because we accord them no epistemic weight in and of themselves, we are justified, not perhaps in affirming them, but in assuming, or accepting them. Only when the positive claim is successfully defended do we have reason to adopt it in preference to its corresponding negative.

This is the entire basis of the scientific method, which involves the presupposition of a null hypothesis — a negative assumption about which, because of observed evidence, there is some doubt — which the scientist attempts to disprove. It is also (along with the potential moral consequences of doing otherwise) the basis of the legal principle of the presumption of innocence. These two examples alone should show the inequality in epistemic weight between affirming a positive claim and defaulting to the negative by not affirming it, and the importance of recognising this inequality. This is also the reason that in binary computing logic, where true is represented as one, false is represented not as negative one but as zero.

This view removes the need to resolve the disagreement between a reasonable atheist and a reasonable agnostic, if we accept conventional logic and the traditional definitions of these terms. The agnostic who maintains that he does not actually not believe fails to recognise this piece of logic: it is impossible to doubt whether X while still believing that X, and to not believe that X is to make the negative assumption that not-X. The atheist who does not admit that he does not know for complete certain whether God exists is not following proper methods of inquiry any more than the theist who believes despite the complete lack of reasonably convincing evidence, because he is assigning epistemic weight to a negative claim.

To wit (which by the way is just as short as tl;dr, unless you point it out):
  • not to know entails not to believe; and
  • not to believe entails to refrain from assigning epistemic weight.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Every Sperm Is Sacred...

This year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to Professor Robert Edwards for his work on developing IVF technology. As you can probably tell from the title, I'm not making this post solely to congratulate him on his achievements or his award. IVF is an incredibly powerful technology. Personally, I'm in favour of infertile couples adopting in preference to using IVF, but that doesn't mean I don't think the prize is completely deserved.

The Catholic Church has come out and called the award "completely out of order". Because there are too many people in the world already? Of course not; this is the same organisation that hates condoms and birth control on principle. Because it is kinder to adopt a child than to create one? No. One could be forgiven for assuming that the church doesn't care about actual children at all, given the way it treats them. (I'm not just talking about pedophile priests, or the foot-shuffling approach to dealing with same, I'm talking about behaviour that the church actively condones.) Instead, its entire concerns are with the millions of embryos created in the course of employing Edwards' technology that don't then go on to become children.

The reality is that, if he did exist, God would be the biggest abortionist of them all. Roughly a quarter of all pregnancies pass unnoticed because the embryo fails to implant, or dies in the first few weeks. Including these cases, the number of pregnancies that end in miscarriage is roughly a third. I lost more cells the last time I played The Unforgiven than these unused embryos possess. I'm not going to get into a lengthy rant on the permissibility of clinical abortion here, but I will say that the only people, by and large, who think IVF is a remotely controversial technology are the minority of Catholics who still swallow every turd that comes out of the Pope's office. They ought to consider the possibility that it is they, and not those with actual medical knowledge or fact-based ethics, who are out of order. They won't, of course — blind faith in irrational dogma tends to discourage one from doing such things — but they damn well ought.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Keep Talking (part II).

It doesn't have to be like this.
All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.
— Stephen Hawking. 
But what if nobody listens? Keep talking anyway — and just as importantly, listen yourself.

Remember the three italic words in Saturday's post. Language is symbolic. What matters isn't the word you use, it's the meaning behind the word. Be as clear as you can be on your meaning, and don't get hung up on word-shapes. (Unless you're writing poetry.) Language is holistic, infinite in fact. You can always express yourself differently, more clearly, more persuasively. And language can be permanent. If the people you're dealing with right now don't listen, the situation can and in all probability will change. I am far less concerned with having children and passing on my genes than I am with writing books and passing on my thoughts.

Now, I'd be lying if I said I didn't want people to agree with me, but being listened to is both easier and more important, as it's the first step toward both legitimate agreement and legitimate disagreement. I should have a lot more respect for someone who listens and respectfully disagrees than for someone who blindly follows. Jesus and Socrates were both put to death for their words by men who, completely missing the irony, refused to listen. Their enemies are remembered now only as their enemies, not as people in their own right. Their friends, those who listened to them, are remembered and praised for passing on their words — neither man wrote a word that we can read today, but through Plato and the evangelists, their thoughts and ideas survive. The result is that these two men are, probably more than anyone else, responsible for much of the way we think today.

By your actions, you can do good in your lifetime.
By your words, you can do good for thousands of years.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Keep Talking (part I).

For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals.
Then something happened
which unleashed the power of our imagination:
We learned to talk.
— Stephen Hawking.
I had a fairly long post planned on this subject but Miriam beat me to it, at least as far as the set-up goes, so I'll abridge the parts that she's already covered.

Speech — not just communication, but holistic, symbolic, infinite language — is what sets us apart from the other animals. Not in its own right, but because of the other abilities it gives us. Arguably writing is even more important, as it adds permanence to the list of properties of language and allows ideas to propagate across time as well as between contemporaneous individuals.

What do I mean by these things? Why did I put them in italics to grab your attention? Well, symbolic language means that the shape of the signifiers have no regular relationship to what they signify — the sounds of words have nothing to do with their meaning. We have onomatopœia, of course, but even then the shape of the word is a ritualised imitation, rather than a mimicry. There are also some relationships between words that shed light on their relative meaning, but not between words and their meanings themselves. Holistic means that the language can be adapted to express (in theory) anything at all. If you don't have a word for something, you can describe it in terms of other words, even if you have to use a lot of them. This is what gives human languages their infinite capacity; if you can think about it, and you both speak the same language, you can make someone else think about it.

Permanence is similarly straightforward: if you can write something down, someone can take your ideas in long after you're dead, and you don't have to trust to the Chinese-Whispers gamble of oral tradition. It's kind of amusing that I'm linking back to Miriam's treatment of the same subject, given it's precisely this "shoulders-of-giants" concept that sets humans apart that I'm using.

Part II is coming on Tuesday. I know this post isn't overly long, I'm just not completely satisfied with the second half yet.