Monday, 31 March 2008

"Only fools are enslaved by time and space."

Time is ridiculous. The human concept of time is an invention; a method that our ancestors invented to organise the essential temporality of existence. Being creatures attuned to four dimensions, we are inexorably temporal; enslaved by the steady flow of time – seemingly in one direction only. So our ancestors made up an arbitrary system to section off the sequential movement of the sun into 24 little chunks and then further section each chunk into 60 smaller chunks and then section each chunk into 60 more smaller chunks. Now a second is universally recognised as the time it takes to say ‘One Mississippi’. This system of time makes it easier to sequence events and forms the basis of an undeniable human truth that everyone accepts: ‘things happen’.

And so, humanity views the 24-hour clock as sacrosanct – an absolute certainty. The length of a second is certain and fixed. People take this perception of time to be objective and universal; built into the very fabric of our minds (even though relativity theory has now shown that time is relative and is as affected by the weird forces of the cosmos as anything else). If someone decided to move their clock back two hours and have their 6pm at everyone else’s 8pm, they’d be seen as wrong. Just plain wrong.

Yet the sacred nature of absolute time is completely ignored two days of every year when British Summer Time begins and ends. Based upon the premise of saving daylight, the whole continent of Europe changes every clock twice a year without question. Frankly it doesn’t make any sense. If we as a civilisation are going to use this system of absolute serially ordered time, why should it ever be changed? Why don’t the people who desire more daylight change? Shouldn’t changing the clocks be a voluntary activity (having said that, it’s not like we’d be arrested if we refused to change our clocks)?

In the 1790s, France adopted decimal time following the French Revolution. Humans, being creatures of habit, failed to accept the new 10-hour scheme much preferring to stay with the less common-sensical 24-hour clock. The whole scheme only lasted two years. The French tried again in 1897 but that was formally abandoned three years later. ‘Swatch Internet Time’ is not exactly the same measuring system but it follows the same common-sense principle: that our current system is too arbitrarily complicated. Obviously everyone understands the standard 24-hour clock but that doesn’t mean it’s as efficient as it could possibly be. Britain has changed to metric measurement and metric currency; the next logical step is to change to metric time. Rather than obey the whim of an arbitrary 24-hour clock we should follow the slightly-less arbitrary system of mathematics – it would be so much easier for the next generations if everything were divided into 100s and 10s instead of 24s and 60s.

Now that society has established a system of organising time, humans will never be able to cope without one. The species has crippling itself into endless temporal sequencing through reliance on the rotation of the planet. Events no longer happen one before another after another; they happen at unique, discrete points in our system. The A-Series of time versus the B-Series of time.

For some reason our brains are attuned to work temporally and so we’re forever trapped by our own perception of the relentless march of time. What’re you gonna do though? ‘Things happen.’

Saturday, 29 March 2008

"They never just review 'Guitar Hero' or 'Katamari'..."

I really can’t afford to keep getting angry every time someone moves themselves into the media spotlight by decrying the violence of video games: it’s bad for my blood pressure and stress levels. I’ve written about it before and I have no inclination to repeat myself again. It’s just that bad arguments and fallacious reasoning anger me, particularly because I know some people will believe it.

Anyway I felt like linking to this “chilling verdict” of Anne Diamond simply because it has without a doubt the worst Photoshop job I have ever seen. I don’t even understand it: I can only assume that Anne, in her hatred of the violent video games in question, couldn’t stand to have them touch her own innocent flesh and so they got a stand-in to hold the games then pasted Anne’s upper body over it.

It looks like Anne has had a horrendous accident involving a copy of ‘Dead Rising’.

Monday, 24 March 2008

"Riddles in the Dark."

"What has roots as nobody sees,
Is taller than trees
Up, up it goes,
And yet never grows?”

There’s something so satisfying about a good old-fashioned riddle. They represent questions with absolute certainty behind the answers: once you figure it out, you can’t understand why you couldn’t see it before: a gestalt shift occurs like in the case of the duck-rabbit. The answers generally fit with such a high degree of certainty that you feel it could not possibly be any different. Weffriddles, a byzantine labyrinth of lateral thinking and html, is a great example of a series of satisfying riddles.

“What is stronger than God
More evil than the Devil

Poor people have it
Rich people need it

Folks who eat it die?”

The riddle game is a tradition in literature; a true battle of wits one against another. From the god Odin and the trickster Loki, to the mythical Sphinx, to ‘The Hobbit’ and beyond, riddles abound in great stories. ‘Lost’ is starting to reveal itself as one big riddle: as more answers come, one realises how well and how obviously it all fits together. Yet, despite the certainty that riddles represent, riddle games in novels generally end unsatisfactorily, with one character breaking the rules to beat the other character. “What have I got in my pocket?” is not a riddle that Gollum could have answered and yet Bilbo walks away with the ring and his life. In ‘The Dark Tower’ series, the riddle game against Blaine the Mono ends when Eddie cheats with unsolvable riddles.

“Tear one off
Scratch my head

What now is black

Once was red.”

The philosopher’s problem is viewing life as a riddle: the biggest riddle there is. There are philosophers who enjoy the intrigue and skill behind a good debate and the joys of proper argument structure. There are those philosophers who enjoy thinking in the abstract and the hearing of new ideas. And there are that rare and unlucky breed like Edmund Husserl and Ludwig Wittgenstein who feel that they can get to certainty through philosophy: who feel that the answer to the Ultimate Question will eventually be discovered through the slow process of thesis joining with antithesis to form synthesis. Gradually this chain will lead to a final synthesis and, like seeing the answer to a riddle, everything will make perfect sense. It’s an unfortunate fact that actually the more one does philosophy, the more one falls away from any degree of certainty. It’s the philosopher’s sad fate to toil forever at a riddle that doesn’t follow the rules of the riddle game. To reach for the non-existent answer that will ultimately satisfy. To wander too far into the Nietzschean labyrinth of lonely abstraction and, if unlucky, come face-to-face with the languid behemoths of consciousness that dwell therein.

“When one does not know what it is,
then it is something;

but when one knows what it is,
then it is nothing.”

Thursday, 20 March 2008

"Caution - Reading this is highly addictive, don't start."

An editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry argues that internet addiction should to be added to the DSM-IV (or rather the 2012 DSM-V). Dr. Jerald Block claims that excessive use of the internet leads people towards “neglect of basic drives”, sometimes forgetting to eat or sleep.

Generally I hate the trend in modern psychology to define everything as a disorder and I think it contributes to the current ‘climate of fear’: some people don’t have ‘anxiety disorders’, they’re just anxious and everyone gets depressed sometimes, it doesn’t mean doctors should immediately prescribe Prozac, there was a wonderful documentary by Adam Curtis that came to this conclusion, it just irritates me that psychology deigns to tell anyone what they can or can’t do; sorry getting carried away here... The point is, I live securely in the knowledge that ‘Everyone is crazy’.

Consequently I don’t think that internet addiction is a massive problem (this has nothing to do with the fact that I’d be classified as a severe junkie). The nature of modern life is obsession: obsession with family, money, friends, television, books. It’s just that these obsessions are viewed as perfectly normal: everyone wants money, right, and so it’s socially acceptable to strive for a big pay-cheque so you can feel good about yourself and get a little ego-boost. I’d go so far as to say that the vast majority of Britons are addicted to the acquisition of material goods. It’s a cliché that women like to buy shoes and yet shoe addiction isn’t being viewed as a mental disorder.

Apparently “[s]ome use computers like they would drugs or alcohol as a way to escape reality”. Quotes like this annoy me: accusations of escapism surround fantasy literature and video games. Firstly (and in typically philosophical fashion) there’s no such thing as objective reality, everything is subjective: some people’s reality is constituted by alcohol or the internet, those are their norms and just because they don’t fit into a neat psychological mould doesn’t mean that they are ‘escaping’. Secondly, what kind of person is it that doesn’t want to escape a ‘reality’ of rampant consumerism, perpetual war, acclimatised societal fear, and general emotional havoc? Anyone who would call themselves ‘well-adjusted’ to modern society is someone I have no desire to talk to.

The advent of the internet is changing the world and we’re all running to keep up. Information is no longer confined to the learned or the rich; everyone who can afford a broadband subscription can get access to a tremendous bank of human knowledge. The internet can be a banquet for the mind (or other human inclinations) and it’s only natural that people enjoy it. ‘Internet addiction’ is no different to the other tacit addictions that everyone holds but don’t know that they hold because it’s not classified in the big ol’ DSM-IV. Some people are always more obsessive than others (‘Everyone is crazy’) but, for the most part, those like the seven South Koreans who died in an internet cafe are isolated cases.

I guess now it's just a matter of time before warning labels like those on cigarette packets are stuck onto the routers at PC World.

Addendum: Apparently Robin Hobb disagrees to some extent.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Review - Slaughterhouse-Five

‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ by Kurt Vonnegut is easily comparable to ‘Catch-22’ by Joseph Heller: both deal with atrocities and absurdities in World War II, both look through the eyes of every-men characters, both employ humour to convey their messages. But whereas ‘Catch-22’ focused intensely on character and had very little actual plot to speak of, ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ is almost entirely plot and the characters are almost tangential. Vonnegut also readily admits this: “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.”

It’s really nothing to complain about though because the plot is packed with interesting ideas, concepts about the nature of time, and messages about fatalism and free will (or lack thereof). The story concerns Billy Pilgrim, a person ‘unstuck’ in time who floats about between his life after the war, his days as a young POW, and his alien abduction. The aliens are massively important to the central idea because they view time differently from humans and it’s this fourth-dimensionality that gives the philosophical ideas in such an interesting manner. The plot ultimately comes across as tremendously well thought-out.

The novel is often accused of being quietist and while it’s understandable, I don’t think it’s quite fair. The aliens, Tralfamadorians, view time as a fixed construct analogous to a mountain range: while humans wander the peaks and troughs, they are able to view the whole structure at one time. Time is completely passive rather than active and everything can always be said to exist. Death (a major theme of the book) is not the end because the person is still alive in past times which are immutable. This is the alien’s view but I don’t think it’s necessarily what we’re supposed to take away from the book. Maybe human nature does make certain events inevitable and maybe time is fixed; maybe wars are “as easy to stop as glaciers”; in that sense resignation seems the only option. But it’s not. If, at the end of life, we skip about through our life like Billy Pilgrim or experience it all again like in Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, then surely it is incumbent upon us to lean our attitudes towards the positive in every single moment of our lives. At the end in Dresden, Billy claims that the happiest moment of his life was sunning himself in a wagon in the ravages of that burned city: he took happiness where he could find it even though the world died around him. Because he knew everything was inevitable he was more able to take comfort in the fleeting moments of joy that came his way. Some may call it quietist, I call it existential.

It’s a fine book; shorter and not as good a literary work as ‘Catch-22’ but ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ is suffused with more interesting science-fictional and philosophical concepts. To me at least it also expresses a more optimistic view of life than the pessimism and all-encompassing bureaucracy that permeates Heller’s masterpiece. While ‘Catch-22’ said that “Man is matter” and we’re all going to die after a life of annoyance and difficulty, ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ says that we might as well enjoy the ride while it lasts and not allow ourselves to become too enslaved by time and space.

So it goes.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

"The dust has only just began to form crop circles in the carpet..."

Recently a group of students from my university have been gathering to play hide and seek in a large building which the university faculty decided to abandon. The university has had a flux of new buildings over the past year and departments have been shuffled around to occupy them. It appears that a large amount of staff moved from the old tradition red-brick building to a new modernist place of glass and metal two minutes down the road: the old building now lies dormant and abandoned with every storey above the first floor unused by anyone.

So we play hide and seek in it. It’s a form of a trend called urban exploration where a group of people set out to explore the derelict and abandoned places of a city. When you really start looking for them, there really are a great number of empty buildings around urban areas: a shocking amount of unguarded places which are left completely abandoned.

As well as being enormously fun to have a huge building as a giant playground, it’s brought to my attention how wasteful it all is. At first I thought playing hide and seek there was absurd, one of those uniquely 'student' things to do because only students have the time to do such a thing. But really it works as a tacit protest against the wastefulness and senselessness of the university's position towards the building. The building has literally just been left as it was on the day the faculty moved out. It looks like people simply grabbed what they could carry and left the rest in whatever state of disarray it was in. Desks are left with papers piled on top of them. Computers sit gathering dust. The phones still get a dial tone. One sink in a departmental office was still full of dirty washing up; plates encrusted with cake crumbs and glasses containing small pools of wine, evidently left over from the moving celebrations. Chairs are left unattended. The rooms which aren’t locked are still full of old but perfectly good furniture.

The effect of being in the building is that of desolation. It’s like being inside one of those narratives where one survivor remains after the apocalypse has been and gone: ’28 Days Later’, ‘I Am Legend’, Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’. The sight of it most resembles photos of the city of Pripyat in the Ukraine, the city inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, now nothing more than a ghost town. But whereas that city is actually unfit for human habitation due to radiation, the university building is prime real estate in the centre of an English city. It seems absurd to allow such a wonderful, traditional, and huge building to sit completely empty. And still full of useful items: desks, routers, computer monitors, wine boxes (admittedly turned to vinegar boxes by now), shelves, cutlery, filing cabinets, papers, hundreds of items which could still be used!

With such an emphasis today on recycling and, as the latest Budget can attest, going green, everyday waste like this ought to be addressed. Although it may not strictly be allowed, I know many students will use that building as a quiet place to relax or for some exploration or just to get some reading done in peace. It makes me glad that, even if the people who own the buildings don’t care for them, someone will appreciate them.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

"Autophobia - not the fear of motorcars."

“There the gunslinger sat, his face turned up into the fading light... and he was lonely but did not find loneliness in any way a bad or ignoble thing.”

So ends ‘The Gunslinger’ by Stephen King, describing Roland Deschain, a perfect example if there ever were one of a Jungian archetype; the lonely hero. There are countless hundreds of examples throughout literature and mythology of the courageous hero who must perform an act of self-sacrifice in venturing on his/her quest entirely alone. Dr. Who, Superman, King Arthur, Zarathustra, Odysseus, Beowulf, Gandalf, Sherlock Holmes, Yoda. These characters walk their paths on their own; maybe they have companions but they never truly touch anyone. These are the lonely heroes, the great human characters fated to noble loneliness.

And yet, in today’s society a stigma floats around those who are alone, even if they are happy to be so. It’s viewed as perhaps a little strange or sad to eat alone and those who cannot or don’t want to find a life-partner are viewed as social misanthropes, not obeying the norms of general society. Why would this be? Why would we glorify the noble lonely hero and yet in reality cast aside those individuals who are content in their solitude?

Someone from my past once told me that even when I sit alone, I don’t seem lonely. Human beings need solitude, a factor of a contented life which is forgotten in today’s world where we cram people together in a house for entertainment. Nowadays people need the TV on in the background, the radio for ‘companionship’, the flux of inner-city nightclubs just to stave off encroaching loneliness. But in reality there is nothing to fear from being alone. In solitude, one is able to discover oneself and even reach truths about the universe which other people disguise. Jesus of Nazareth accepted his destiny alone in the garden. Siddhārtha Gautama discovered enlightenment alone beneath the Bodhi tree. Moses went up Mt. Sinai on his own (and got high, if the latest research is to be believed).

On the other hand, no man is an island. I merely advocate ridding the world of this collective fear of loneliness and encouraging people to occasionally embrace solitude in order to better themselves.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

"The Greatest Fear."

My greatest fear can be expressed through a recurring daydream I indulge in.

I’m not afraid of death; more afraid of something that could manifest itself beyond death. Since I don’t know what comes after we shuffle off this mortal rock, the idea presented here simply represents what is absolutely the most optimistic ideal.

I die. Then there’s the tunnel, the light at the end, the whole shebang. Family and friends wave me along the last road I’ll ever walk down to the destination my whole life has been leading towards. The pearly gates rise before me, magnificent in their scale and surpassing anything human artisans could achieve in their wildest imaginings. I walk or float or move somehow towards that portal that will finally take me away from human frailty.

My consciousness achieves transcendence or nirvana or harmony or whatever you want to call it and I move into the presence of the creator: God, destiny, karma, Allah, ka, the Force, everything in one. I gaze into the face of the universe and the relief of a life spent searching washes over me. It’s finally all over: the trials and testing, the doubt and denials, the confusing and meandering journey of life. Finally I stand before the universe and my quest is at an end.

As I gaze up at It, the words won’t form in my mouth because I want to savour the moment as much as possible. All roads have led here. Every event has been part of a chain to reach this point. Finally the pointless excursions on Earth are over and the answer will be revealed.

And I ask the questions I’ve asked my entire life, the questions that have haunted my thoughts for years upon years, the questions that have defined my very existence by their unrelenting presence: “What is the meaning of everything? What is the purpose of biological life? What is the universe? Why were we here?”

And It turns all the attention in the cosmos towards me and I feel like this is it, the end of the path at last, the answers to all my searchings. The trumpets raise to a thunderous crescendo as my life’s quest is finally, finally, vindicated and I know that I was right to spend all my time searching because the answers are about to be given.

The universe, God, turns to me and It says:

“You mean you don’t know. I was going to ask you!”

And that’s my greatest fear: that God Itself is oblivious to the true nature of everything and that humanity is doomed to never reach ultimate resolution.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

"There was also no mention of super-string theory but perhaps that's no bad thing."

Professor Stephen Hawking is undoubtedly a genius. The present Lucasian Professor of Mathematics has furthered the popularisation of theoretical physics, done tremendous research into black holes, and come up with a neat description of the universe as analogous to the surface of a sphere. His achievements are naturally made all the more impressive by his constant struggle with motor neuron disease. He’s an intellectual personality; the poster boy for late 20th Century science that Einstein was for the early 20th Century.

However the documentary Channel 4 aired about him last night was rather unfair. The main insinuation was that he was on a lone quest to come up with the Theory of Everything that physics strives for. The programme repeatedly mentioned Hawking and Hawking’s discoveries to the neglect of the thousands of other scientists whose research has led us to the position we occupy today. The only other notable physicist mentioned was Roger Penrose. It seems unfair to not acknowledge that science is a collaborative effort made possible only by the work of people working in tandem all over the globe.

Science cannot work with just one person striving towards discovery. The days of men like Galileo working alone against the crowd are over. Modern physics is a world of research papers, intense debate, and trial & error. People bounce theories off each other, improve on them, and eventually unify with opposing theories to explain everything as best they can.

Last night’s documentary seemed to imply that Hawking was entirely responsible for the theory that the Big Bang occurred with a singularity, which he wasn’t: working with Penrose he just proved it mathematically possible for a singularity to exist. The Big Bang theory has been around for considerably longer, probably since the phenomenon of red shift was discovered, if not before. The programme stated that Hawking is looking for a theory of quantum gravity without noting that Feynman has already made a proposal regarding quantum gravity (although admittedly it is rather contentious). Worst of all (for someone who has studied time travel as excessively as I have) there was no mention of the dimension of time at all: strange considering the entire chapter in Hawking’s best-selling book on ‘The Arrow of Time’. Relativity theory was said to demonstrate that large bodies bend space which is not entirely accurate; large bodies like stars and planets bend spacetime, the four-dimensional construct that forms the universe.

Stephen Hawking is perhaps best known for his work on black holes which is fine however he is not single-handedly paving the way for the Grand Unified Theory. It must be remembered that he is one single physicist and although he may be a genius, it’s only through scientific collaboration that we are getting close to an ultimate theory.

As a postscript, it seems worth mentioning Hawking’s stance on philosophy. At the very end of ‘A Brief History of Time’ he mentions that it is the philosophers’ job to explain the ‘why’ of the universe because science is close to explaining the ‘how’. He chastises philosophers for not being able to keep up with the trends of science and so not doing their job properly. To a certain extent this is true; a lot of philosophers would rather read Confucius than Einstein, but it’s worth remembering that science is nothing more than a tangential offshoot of philosophy: it was only sometime in the 16th Century that Francis Bacon’s scientific method began the branching of empirical science away from ‘natural philosophy’ as it was known back then. Until the Philosopher Kings are put in place and both science and religion are amalgamated back into philosophy where they belong, maybe scientists should endeavour to keep up with philosophical advances; that way some of the fallacies from documentaries like last night’s could be avoided.