Tuesday Jan 12, 2010

Food Envy - a short silent comedy

This weekend I went to a birthday party in Berlin, where one of the guests presented this very short (5 min) Laurel and Hardy style movie he shot on super 8 film a couple of years ago with his friends. I convinced him to put it up on youtube. Here it is for your enjoyment:

As it happens the day before I had been discussing the relation between jealousy and envy, two emotions that are often confused. The Wikipedia article on Envy, confirms the widespread nature of this misunderstanding. Whereas envy is an emotion relating two or more people and an object, jealousy involves three people and a shifting relationship between them. In this film the object of envy is the food, and this film very clearly illustrates what envy is. We all remember such episodes from our childhood I bet. It would be fun to do a film like this on jealousy, and all the other emotions...

Pirate Party gets naked in Berlin to protest airport scanners

The 60ies are back, and so is getting naked at protests :-) The Pirate Party in Berlin has just protested the intrusiveness of planned scanning technology at the Tegel Airport, with the motto "No need to scan we are already naked". Here is the video:

There is a very serious need to put the terrorist threat back into perspective and laugh a little. As argued very cogently in the recent Register article "Trouser-bomb clown attacks - how much should we laugh?" there is no need to respond any further with security increase to such attacks. All that has been done is done. There is nothing more one can do. Life is fundamentally insecure. According to John Baker, you are "8 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist". When one responds to a crisis one has to keep the relative dangers in perspective, and deal with the most important ones first. And it is not completely unthinkable that the threat of government intrusion into our private lives is just simply a much bigger danger than terrorism right now.

This recent article in Wired "Airport Scanners Can Store, Transmit Images" details the power of these new scanners that the German government plans to introduce as an attempted response to the underpants bomber. If you accept that, then why not just go all the way and make nudist (FKK in German) planes available, as the Pirate Party demonstrators cheekily suggest.

Beyond airport security, which has so clearly now gotten completely out of hand, the demonstration is aimed to wake citizens out of the slumber which has allowed us all to give one part of society - the "security" services - completely disproportionate power over the rest of society. As Mr Security shows so well, there is no reason we should not set limits to their action, by allowing us, citizens to monitor them too, by re-establishing our rights in public spaces, and by not just accepting any irrational request for security increase, and intrusions into the private sphere.

And speaking of intrusions into the private space, we should also be careful to trust our privacy to large firms: see the recent ReadWrite web article "Facebook's Zuckerberg Says The Age of Privacy is Over". Privacy like freedom, is something one has to fight for to keep.

Other links:

Saturday Jan 09, 2010

Mr Security: patrolling public spaces

Mr Security is a brilliant piece of performance art exploring with seriousness and humor the fast encroaching surveillance society growing in our midst and in our souls. The product of their work consists in realistically crafted PDF security marketing material (in German and English), in which they describes the team's security performances, which consist in watching public spaces and documenting the reactions to it.

A very telling example is the very short surveillance of the street around the American Embassy in Berlin. After taking a few pictures of the street a few police officers arrive. The dialog is noted as:

POLICE OFFICER 1
Excuse me, please put your camera away. Hello young man, did you hear me?
POLICE OFFICER 2
Hello. Do you have some identification?
MISTER SECURITY
Yes!
PO 1
Why are you taking pictures of us here?
MS
I'm observing
PO 1
Who?
MS
The street.
PO 1
Why?
MS
For Security.
PO 1
Oh!? Where are you from?
MS
Private security service.
PO 1
Where are you from? Your badge doesn’t help us at all. Where are you from?
MS
What do you mean, where am I from?
PO 1
Well, where from? A security service? Who?
MS
Here, Mister Security!
PO 2
Young man, please take your hands out of your pockets! I feel happier that way. What security company do you work for?
MS
Mister Security, private security service!
PO 2
Yes, and your area of operation is the American embassy, or what?
MS
Private security reinforcement.
PO 2
Oh!
PO 1
For what? For who?
MS
For public safety.
PO 2
Who hired you?
MS
The public itself!
PO 1
Oh! Let’s get this straight, it’s not entirely clear what you’re saying here. Let me tell you what I think. I don’t buy this private security service story – look at your shoes. They look like my last pair of work shoes, to be honest. I don’t believe you’d be dressed like that if you were working for the public.
MS
There’s not that much money in the private sector anymore!
PO 1
Well, I’d have thought your employer would provide you with what you need.
MS
I have to see to my clothes myself.
PO 1
No, really, this is not okay!... What’s on your film? What kind of a camera is that?
MS
It’s not switched on. It’s a digital camera, but as you can see, it’s not turned on, look – nothing!
PO 1
Okay! Well I do want to get clearance here. We’ll have to inform the sector. And I’m going to ask you to wait so that we can be sure about your identity. You can stand under the shelter here, that way you’ll stay dry. This’ll take a few minutes.
PO 2
Are you a one-man business?
MS
Well, it’s not that big yet – but I’m trying to grow.
PO 2
How did you get this commission and who gave it to you? What assignment are you working on?
MS
I am not at liberty to say!
PO 2
Oh, you’re not at liberty to say?!
MS
I think it’d be a good thing if there were more surveillance.
PO 2
You do?
MS
You need reinforcements here. It’s not enough that you’re here with just three people on this side.
PO 2
Oh! And where do you see the security problem?
MS
Yes, well you could have twenty well-prepared guys come and run right past you here!
PO 2
Right, and what do you want to do about that, if I may ask? Perhaps we could exchange some ideas?
MS
Yes, that’s exactly the issue. We’re working for several embassies right now. We’re revising the security concept, which we’ll then introduce personally.
PO 2
Right! Great! And the private sector will deal with it then?
MS
Exactly! It’s cheap and effective!

You can read about the continuation of this conversation, and others involving a number of different actors (including anti-fascist demonstrators, for example) in their PDF.

Mr Security presented his work in detail at the 26th Chaos Computer Congress "Here be Dragons" in Berlin on 27 December 2009. There he revealed how the camera's sound had in fact continued to function during the whole conversation. What does not appear in this PDF is his later experience going to the US, where he received a stipend at a New York art institute. On appearance of the FBI to the studio he was promptly ejected by his artist colleagues who clearly lacked the courage (see my recent article on "After Virtue") to support him. Not that surprising perhaps given the extraordinary high amount of people in US jails, with 3.2% under direct police surveillance at any one time.

Can one still have a democracy in such an atmosphere of fear? If yes, then for how long?

Friday Jan 08, 2010

After Virtue: history, ethics and identity

While walking around Blackwell's bookstore in Oxford I picked up Alasdair MacIntyre's "After Virtue", a book that I had seen in philosophy sections for over 20 years now after it having been recommended to me by my undergraduate Philosophy discussion partner Mark Pitt.

When I finally started reading it a few weeks later, I could no longer put it down. This is a philosophy book that starts like a novel, reads like a novel, and indeed it's main thesis is that our understanding of ethics and life has to be that way, because we have to understand ourselves and our interactions with others as parts of a developing, interlinked, enmeshed and developing narrative.

Virtues are those character traits that are necessary for individuals-in-communities to work together to a common goal, that will enable the good of man, understood itself as an evolving historical self understanding. This type of analysis requires teleological thinking - the idea that a person can only be understood by understanding the good of man, the aim of a life being that of having a coherent story to tell - which was the basis for the Aristotelian account of society and nature.

Where Aristotle failed was by applying telos to the physical sciences: explanations that stones fall to the ground because they want to be there, were put to an end by Newtonian mechanics. With that Newtonian insight and the massive success of the physical sciences that followed, started a process of questioning the philosophy that Saint Thomas Aquinas had integrated so well into Christian thought, itself underpinned by Jewish historical religion. The philosophers of the enlightenment attempted one after the other to replace telos and history with some form of Rational grounding where it was thought that reason in some sense gave us access to the divine point of view. But without the understanding of telos, MacIntyre argues, the project was bound to fail. Hume had to resort to intuition to ground a very specific moral outlook; Kant resorted to universalisable rules that would complement the laws of nature which could be used as criteria to evaluate actions viewed non historically; and Bentham and the other utilitarians up to this day tried to devise mathematical calculi of happiness, ignoring the issue that this cannot be measured. Historically minded philosophers such as Hegel still held onto a rationalistic conception of evolution of spirit, that fatally believed that history was deterministic, since science seemed to be. Since science did not make value judgments, neither did Marx, leading to the creation of some of the worst political systems of the 20th century - and that is not a major feat. Within the western tradition amoral bureaucracies gained ground, under the Weberian motto of utility, and slowly all understanding of the basis of right and wrong disappeared, as it did in the 1930ies when it was found reasonable in philosophical circles to hold a position that to say that something is good, is just to say "I like it, do so too", preparing us for the ravages of consumer culture.

Since the book was first published, the Soviet empire collapsed, and it might even be that the latest financial crisis is revealing some of the deep flaws in non critical implementations of capitalism. So the message seems just as relevant now as it did 30 years ago when the book first appeared.

The above review, needless to say does no justice to the depth of argumentation found in the book. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a much more detailed overview of MacIntyre's philosophy though it does not read nearly as well as "After Virtue" itself.

Wednesday Nov 18, 2009

Legalise marijuana

I was watching Newsnight yesterday evening, which is running a show on "recipes for a good and palatable tax".

Britain is facing its biggest deficit for 40 years. The question is not whether taxes should go up, but how.

A number of people came up to propose some good ways of generating new taxes. It occurred to me that legalizing cannabis/marijuana should provide quite a nice windfall in taxes. I have not read the recent book "Economics and Marijuana: Consumption, Pricing and Legislation" which is bound to have a detailed analysis of how much one could expect in taxes from legalization, but going from the sentence in the introduction

...expenditure on marijuana in Australia is estimated to be three quarters of that of beer and twice that of wine.
and putting that together with the figure I found in "Alcohol: Tax, Price and Public Health" that £6 billion were collected in taxes on beer, would make me think that one could collect at least £4.5 billion on cannabis if the tax rate for cannabis were the same as that for beer - but it could be more as people have gotten used to paying for the risk to the dealers. In Keneth Clements and Mert Daryal's online paper "The Economics of Marijuana Consumption" (p 18) they estimate that in 1995 the Australians spent 5 billion dollars on Marijuana. Since there are three times more people in the UK, and counting the fall in value of currencies over a period of 10 years, we have 15 billion 1995 Australian dollars that might now be worth $22 billion, which converted into pound sterling is £12 billion. It seems quite reasonable then that out of a spending of that size it should be easy for the state to recuperate at least 1/3 of that if not more.

One could furthermore save a huge amount of money on reductions in police surveillance, legal cases and prison sentences. This should be even more true in the USA, which has a huge prison population (10\* larger than most European countries). About.com has an interesting article on the subject "Should Governments Legalize and Tax Marijuana?". See also "A Budget Cure: Marijuana Taxes?". This idea is clearly making its way: Governor Schwarzenegger recently proposed opening the debate on this issue.

In the Newsnight program the proposal that won approval was the proposal to tax the rich a lot more on their pension funds. So my guess is that a lot of rich people should be very keen to legalize marijuana in the very near future.

It would be quite ironic in the end if a mind altering drug were to pull the state out of a hole created by mathematically deluded stock analysts on a huge ego trip.

Monday Nov 09, 2009

7 days in SF Jail - arrival

On October 29 I left London for what was to be a month tour of California. On all previous trips I prepared very little. This time though I spent two weeks organizing a Social Web Camp in order to build up contacts in the Bay. But things took a very different turn.

At Hexagram 64 of the Yi Ching - the oldest book in China - entitled "Before Completion", one can read:

The caution of a fox walking over ice is proverbial in China. His ears are constantly alert to the cracking of the ice, as he carefully and circumspectly searches out the safest spots. A young fox who as yet has not acquired this caution goes ahead boldly, and it may happen that he falls in and gets his tail wet when he is almost across the water. Then of course his effort has been all in vain. Accordingly, in times "before completion," deliberation and caution are the prerequisites of success.

Flight to San Francisco

The British Airways flight left in the late morning from London Heathrow. To keep me busy for the 10 hours trip I had bought the UK and US editions of Wired Magazine at the airport to complement the 1300 pages long collections of essays by Francois Jullien comparing European and Chinese approaches to wisdom which I had bought in Paris a few weeks earlier. ( some of these are available on Google Books in English ).

The plane took off and we were a served a very good and healthy lunch - I was pleasantly surprised. The shades were then pulled down to allow people to sleep or watch films. Even though I woke up at 5am that morning, I was too excited to sleep. So I read the easier Wired magazines from beginning to end to help me get back into the Silicon Valley spirit. One article that caught my attention and that was reprinted in both editions was Neil Christy's "Empty the Prisons" in the "12 Shocking Ideas that Could Change the World" Section. The following diagram makes the point very simply:

prison population comparison across countries

The cost of putting people in prisons is very high. Not just the monetary cost, but also the cost to Liberty. The easier it is for the state to put people in prison, the easier it is for this to be abused by underground operatives to put pressure on people to do things they would not have done otherwise. Perhaps there are crimes that should not be crimes. Not impossible: Alcohol was illegal in the 30ies in the US before being legalised after the complete failure of the program.

Yin and Yang symbol

Having finished those mags I started reading a longer article by Francois Jullien on the different conceptions of Evil and negativity in the East and the West. It is an interesting story that goes all the way back to the earliest conceptions of religion. If God is pure good, how does evil enter the world? Is evil just the lack of Good, as Socrates would have had it? Or is the universe a battle between two equal forces, Good and Evil, as Saint Augustin, had been tempted to think in his earlier days as proponent of the Manichean religion. Or as the Taoists would have it, and as is symbolized so well in the Taoist Tajitu symbol, are these concepts such that they cannot exist without one another? Just as light cannot exist without dark, or high without low, perhaps good cannot exist without bad. And perhaps there is bad in the good and good in the bad? Certainly the Good of One can be the Bad of the other, as this poem - which is part of John Cage's Indeterminacy series - so nicely illustrates:

Kwang-tse
   points         out
               that         a         beautiful
                                                woman


                 who         gives
                           pleasure

                                                 to         men




    serves
 only                                                                                             to
      frighten

                             the         fish


                                                                                when         she
   jumps
                                                                 in         the          water.

Moving away from the desire for purity, may be a very healthy thing to do.

I was tired and would not have had time to finish the 200 page article. Dinner was served. It was then just a short wait till we arrived. The plane dipped. I yawned to relieve the pressure on my ears, and looked out of the window, to what was the only view of the Bay I was going to be allowed to have. The plane landed around 3pm California time, which would have been 11pm London time.

Arrest

I had not filled in the forms for immigration, so I decided to do that comfortably in the plane. Those are the sheets where you are asked questions such as "Have you ever been or are you now involved in espionage or sabotage; or in terrorist activities; or genocide; or between 1933 and 1945 were you involved, in any way, in persecutions associated with Nazi Germany or its allies?" One has to enter 3 or four times the same information. I had to look up the address and phone number of my contacts in the Bay Area. As a result I was the last person to get out of the plane. A huge line awaited me at the passport control check point, and I was upset with myself for not getting out faster. I still wanted to get my bicycle out of the box, and go to Menlo Park to get a few posters for the Social Web Camp and place them around the Bay Area.

I arrived at the control point, gave the officer my passport and cards. But I had forgotten to enter my birth date on the back of one form, so he ordered me to the side to do that, while he dealt with another traveler. I came up, he processed the forms, asked me to put my hand on a fingerprint machine. Something beeped. He did not seem too happy, and told me to go down to the corner of the huge room, to the door I could see in the distance. "Straight down there", he said. I wondered what that was about.

As I entered the room I first saw a row of benches with a little under 10 people sitting there waiting to be processed. I was told to put my passport in a slot and sit down. I thought I could perhaps phone someone, but one was not allowed to make calls there for some reason. I did not want to bother anyone before I knew what the problem was anyway, so I just waited. Slowly people were processed. Some came out of interview rooms. A Woman was asked if she knew someone the Bay Area. She seemed not to understand. An interpreter came around. Her son was called...

I was asked to step to the back office, where they passed my hand through a machine which took the prints of my whole hand and of the side of my hand. They took a few photos. Then they asked me if I knew why I was arrested. No I did not. I thought perhaps I had failed to pay a parking ticket, but I could not imagine that that would warrant my being stopped at the border. So no, I did not understand.

It turns out that a case from 2001, which I was certain had been closed had popped up in their systems. This was from my last year working in the Bay Area, when I had moved to San Francisco to work for E-Translate, at the end of the dot.com boom. So quite some time ago. I had come to the Bay Area three or four times since then, which seemed to shock them, as much as their bringing this issue up shocked me. I told them this was certainly a mistake. Everything had been taken care of. I would be certainly very happy to get this problem cleared up at the courts, and I told them it would very certainly not take much time - Indeed when 6 days later I saw the judge it took him 30 seconds to clear the case. But the officer in front of me did not know that. The information against me on the computer looked bad enough for him, and that was it.

By this time they had taken my telephone, passport and other material, and I was no longer in a position to get advice. I certainly had never been read any rights, and I could not ask anyone for help - I suppose that is just for US citizens. In fact by signing the entry papers I had waived my rights to an immigration court hearing I was told. The interrogating officer, very slowly typed up a report. The first question on the report was: "How are you feeling?" My answer: very tired. It was probably 3am in the morning UK time.

I had pleaded with the officer that I had come just to talk at a conference which I had organized, and to then present talks in different venues. My interest was to have a clear record, and so I would certainly show up in court. Somehow he made me think that I could get bail, and that from there on I could organize the hearings. That seemed like a good enough solution. I felt relieved. Shit happens. At least I'd get a free ride in a cop car.

Ride in a police car

After another long wait, I was asked to remove my shoe laces, empty all my pockets, was handcuffed and walked out to the front of the San Francisco airport. There a couple of policemen were waiting for me. I squeezed into the back seat on the very narrow bench separated by glass and metal from them. They closed the door and drove off, the bag with my cell phone, passport and other bits and bobs with them in the front seat.

They were quite entertaining. One of the officers asked the other if he wanted to go for a pizza, to which the first officer replied that he could no longer eat greasy foods since his appendicitis operation. He went into detail to describe both the cause of appendicitis, the operation, the stones they found in the appendix and the whole trouble that this caused. His colleague did not abandon the pizza idea, and described in detail a famous low cost pizza place where there were only 4 types of pizza available, and where you had better be careful not to ask for anything else. I suggested that I would not be against going for a pizza, to which the pizza loving officer responded jokingly that that clearly showed that I was evil: trying to kill his appendix missing colleague with fatty foods!

We arrived at the San Mateo police station. I had been taken to this station I was told because the San Francisco airport is in fact located in the San Mateo district. They would have to send me over to San Francisco within 5 days. How long that would take would depend on the space available there. I was hoping I could bail out before hand I told them, to which they replied that I would have to talk to the officers in the San Mateo station, they would help me work that out.

San Mateo police station

In San Mateo I was then asked a lot of details all over again. Contact details for people in the Bay, what I was doing here, if I was suicidal, and so on. If you think that the checks at the airport are intrusive - when they ask you to clear everything out of your luggage, and remove your shoes - then you may not want to read the next paragraph.

I was placed into a room and told to strip naked. The officer then frisked my body, then my balls, then asked me to turn against the wall, lean over, spread my cheeks and say "ahh". Not sure what the "Ahh" was for. It did not seem like a good idea not to obey. "Nothing is hidden" as Wittgenstein so well writes in the Philosophical Investigations. I was just happy that the officer did not have to make his blue plastic gloves dirty. As Scott McNeally once quipped: "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it". So I did.

I could then put my shoes and clothes back on. I was sent to a window where a nurse asked me to fill out a form for diseases I could have, if I practiced safe sex, if I was gay or straight, if I was suicidal, and so on... I then had to go through a hand scan and fingerprint scan once more. Then I was sent to a glass protected cell facing the police office, with a small hard bench and behind a low wall, a metal toilet.

In the room was a telephone attached to the wall for collect calls only, and plastered against the wall was a list of bail agents and their telephone numbers. These could be called to borrow money for bail. They take 10% of the money lent. I called one of them to see if and how they would be able to help. Nope he said. We don't help foreigners. Mhh. Well I could pay for bail myself if I had to.

The Drunk Depressive

As I was doing this, the door opened, and I was joined by a strong, slightly overweight and effeminate man, with a bit of a South American look to him, but unusually well dressed. Not very well dressed, I should add. Just that he had a striped office shirt, and clearly paid attention to his looks.

"Burn, burn. They should all burn in hell", he said, which made me just a little uncomfortable.

"People are bad. They deserve to die.", he continued. "They all deserve to die, each one of them.", and after a pause. "We will all die". This he repeated quite a lot.

I let him go on like this, looking through the window. I wanted to find out how I could get bail, as I was quite keen to leave this place. If I could get out of here then I could find hotel close by, and prepare for my talk on Monday. There was still time.

I knocked on the window, as an officer passed and asked how I could find out about bail. They told me to wait for the O.R. people, and pointed to two women working diagonally across the room. I tried waving to them. Time passed.

I found out that the guy in my cell had been arrested for Jay walking and being somewhat drunk. Though to me he seemed more depressed than drunk. He certainly did not smell heavily of alcohol. I did not know Jay Walking could land you in Jail. I never heard of anyone in France being booked for that. It is also I think quite rare for people to be sent away for being tipsy, unless they make a lot of noise, in which case they would be sent out for being a public nuisance I suppose. He wanted to go home, because he had to work at 5 or 6 in the morning at what I understood to be something like a cafe. He had been unemployed for a while, and this was his first job a lady had helped him get. So he had just been celebrating his new job that evening, and things had turned bad.

No exit

"Look at them, they are like children", he said pointing at the officers. "Playing their little games, so sure of themselves. They don't care. They don't care at all. Playing sheriff. Look at that one..."

And it is true they did not seem to care. It must have been 11pm now, and I had been up for over 26 hours without sleep. I was wondering when I could get bail! I might as well sleep here I thought, that would save me a night at the hotel. I started to get worried, so I called the friends in California, whose number I was had written down on a scrap of paper they had left me - I thought someone at least ought to know where I am.

At some point, one of the women came up to the door, and told me I could not get bail. The immigration officers had put an ICE hold on me, disallowing that. I broke up in tears, as I felt the doors close one by one on me.

Friday Jun 19, 2009

Nobody is responsible

Peter Sloterdijk animates a program on the major German Television Station ZDF, entitled the Philosophical Quartet. The latest program of his, which could be translated as Risk and Responsibility: the art of being Nobody is very much worth watching (if you speak german). Sloterdijk starts off the program by reminding us of the ancient story of Ulysses and the Cyclops. In order to free himself from the blood thirsty monster, Ulysses boldly plunged a red hot stake into the sleeping monsters only eye who screaming in pain and rage asked who it was who had done that. Ulyses answered that his name was "Nobody". As the cyclops friends then arrived alerted by the screams of their fellow, and asked him who had done this deed to him, that they could avenge him, they received the answer Nobody. Thinking therefore that the Gods had done that to him, and that he was thus responsible for his deeds, they left him to die in his pain.

This story is used as a spring board by the quartet - the 2 philosohpers and 2 guests: Beatrice Weder Di Mauro swiss economist member of the German 5 wise men board of economic affairs, and novelist Bodo Kirchhoff - to look into the question that nobody seems to be to blame, or accepts the blame, for the massive financial meltdown that saw more money evaporate in a year than all the biggest robberies of all time piled one next to the other over the whole course of humanities history. Clearly something went wrong. Something needs to change, some things need to stop, some to die... The point is well made that the bankers that gave themselves such huge salaries on account that they were responsible for the huge benefits they made, seem to have lost all sense of responsibilty in the crisis. What then is it that needs changing? What criteria should be set in to avoid such errors in the future? One proposal - perhaps a very harsh one for all attempts at mergers - is that you should never allow a system to grow to such a level that it cannot fail, or better: never allow a system to grow so that when it is time to ask for responsibility for a crisis, the only answer can be Nobody.

Peter Sloterdijk, radical cure to twitter

Do you feel like you are in a binary discussion on some topic, that goes back and forth with no apparent progress? Do you feel you have gotten so involved in a micro topic, that you feel that you may be missing the big picture? Is perhaps the phantasy of such a big picture you have taken as your background, itself the cause of the problem you are dealing with? Do you find yourself preaching that God is dead, or not? Are you preaching? Why?

Peter Sloterdijk, one of the most famous contemporary German philosopher, is known to write very large books that span over all domains of human activity from philosophy to history, to technology, aesthetics, biology, religion and economics, in a passionate, often humorous, sometimes jolting way, linking these in a fluid narrative that flows healthily through the barriers of all academic disciplines. Sloterdijk diffuses dualisms through fluid depth of analysis, carefully linking both sides of a debate in such a way that they can be seen to be part of the same surface reflecting a third party that had not yet been seen, the real topic of the discussion perhaps, of which he goes on to draw the history and evolution.

So in his latest book "Du mußt dein Leben ändern" ("You must change your life"), which I have nearly finished reading here in Vienna, Sloterdijk starts off with the a beautiful poem by Rilke of the same title (english translation with german original here ) where Rilke describes what could be called a religious call for transformation whilst looking at an ancient Greek stone torso of Apollo he had come across in the Louvre museum in Paris. The undeniable reality of this upward sentiment of transformation, is what Sloterdijk then goes on to describe the history of throughout his book, linking it to the exercises that Olympic athletes of our times to always further push back the boundaries of what humanity is capable of, which he then traces back to the budhist philosophers and their spiritual exercises, the ancient greek schools of thought, and the exercises the early Christians followed to break through the barriers of death, by for example entering the Roman circus' to be devoured calmly by Lions. This pursuit of transcendental improvement can then be found to have moved from the monasteries of the middle ages into the artisans workshops where the practices of meditation were put to use in the building of the Protestant work ethic...

For those who speak German here is a very interesting interview of him in October of last year on a Swiss television channel talking about the financial meltdown that occurred.

(Thanks to Michael Zeltner for the link on his very interesting blog. More parts here).

And here, for the French speaking of you here is an interview with Elisabeth Levy where they discuss modern media, rumours, and more.

For english speakers here is a talk on Reality Peter Sloterdijk gave a last year before the opening of the large swiss nuclear collider, which I think made the news. (The sounds is not very good, but the points he makes are serious and funny simultaneously):

Wednesday May 20, 2009

You are a Terrorist!

Every country in Europe seems to be on the verge of introducing extremely powerful legislation for state monitoring of the internet, bringing us a lot closer to the dystopia described in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty Four. Under the guise of laws to help combat terrorism or pedophilia - emotional subjects that immediately get everybody's unthinking assent - massive powers are to be given to the state, which could very easily be misused. As internauts we all need to make it our duty to follow very closely these debates, and participate actively in them, if we do not want to find ourselves waking up one morning in a world that is the exact opposite of what we have been dreaming of.

Germany

In Germany a new Data Retention law passed already it seems in 2008, allows the state (quote)

to trace who has contacted whom via telephone, mobile phone or e-mail for a period of six months. In the case of mobile calls or text messages via mobile phone, the user's location is also logged. Anonymising services will be prohibited as of 2009.

To increase awareness of this law Alexander Lehmann put together this excellent presentation, with English subtitles, Du bist Terrorist!:

Du bist Terrorist (You are a Terrorist) english subtitles from lexela on Vimeo.

France

The passage of the hadopi law in France, will create a strong incentive for citizens to place state built snooper software on each their computers in order to make it possible to defend themselves against accusations of copyright infringement. But that is nothing compared to the incredibly broad powers the state wishes to give itself with Loppsi 2 law (detailed article in Le Monde, and Ars Technica) which would give the president the power to insert spyware onto users computers (which could record anything being done of course), create a very large database of people's activities, help link information from various databases, and much more... The recent case of the sacking of the web site director of the once national, now private, TF1 television channel for having communicated his doubts on Hadopi privately to his Member of Parliament - as reported on Slashdot recently - does not give one much faith in the way privacy is being handled currently by the government.

The United Kingdom

In the UK the Home Secretary Jaqui Smith had proposed to create a database dubbed Big Brother to log every single activity of every one of it's citizens - in order of course to root out the very 21 century crimes of pedophilia and terrorism (did the IRA not operate before the internet? Are pedophile rings something that only emerged with the internet, or is it that they just became more visible?). She had to pull back somewhat from the initial proposal, and now wishes all that information still to be tracked, but only to be kept on the service provider's databases as reported by the Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Independent...

Conclusion

So are we now all suspected terrorists, pornographers, pedophiles, murderers, subversives, ... that the governments must know all about us? We may have voted for the current government and have complete faith in their use of these tools. But what when the opposition comes in, and takes hold of those same powers? Will we be as comfortable then? The excellent 2006 film The Lives of Others shows just how intrusive the East German state was on its own citizens during the cold war - and that with the very limited tools they had available. With modern computing tools, that type of spy operation could be done at much much lower cost and so perhaps even be viable for the state.

If you feel things just can't go this wrong, then I would also recommend watching Julie Taymor's adaptation of Shakespear's Titus Andronicus. It really is important to realize that things can go badly, very very badly wrong. Ignoring a problem, not taking responsibilities in fighting them will lead to disaster, as the current economic crisis - predicted years before it occurred, but without any action being taken - should have amply proven by now. Sadly for people who predict danger, if people do act on the danger and avoid it, nobody may even notice how close to danger they really were. So our actions may remain unsung. But at least we may put some chances on our side not to wake up in a new form of dictatorship, worse than any ever dreamed of by our those who helped forge our democracies.

Thursday Apr 30, 2009

The anti-privacy/liberty law named Hadopi

The Hadopi law(en) being voted now in France, constitutes an incredible attack on Freedom of expression and Privacy. It is fascinating to see how a law that gives the state an easy route to invade people's every digital thought is being pushed through, and will very likely be accepted by the French parliament on Monday May 4, 2009.

Parliamentary Maneuverings

The maneuvers of the French parliament here take some work to understand. A few weeks ago Hadopi was rejected in the Assembly by 21 votes against, 15 for. For an Assembly containing well over 300 deputies, and for a law of such importance, it may seem odd that so few people were part of the discussion. The best understanding I have of this is that President Sarkozy, has made this a very personal issue, having promised to a lot of big media friends, with which he is very close, to put in place a system to break the problem of "piracy" on the internet. Anyone in the majority who may have been tepidly against the law, may not have wished making such a powerful enemy. Others may have thought the law was a done deal given the backing. And sadly I think most of the deputies don't really understand the issue at all, as reveled by this video asking deputies what p2p is.

The Anti-Piracy law

Having lost the first vote, Sarkozi ordered his troops together to make his majority in parliament felt by having them massively vote for the law. The problem is that the majority voting now have very little understanding of the technical issues in front of them. Their view of the issue is the one a large part of the French population have: this is simply an issue of being for or against the Pirates; being for or against the artists. "Piracy is theft" is the simplifying drumbeat which organises their thoughts.

Coming to the defence of artists is of course a very noble thing to do. I myself try to stay as clean as possible in that regard, favoring works that are clearly licensed openly. Most work I publish under very free licences, that make it close to impossible to pirate my work. This article for example is published under a Creativce Commons attribution licence. In any case I find it much easier to buy or rent DVDs than to search for content that may be broken on some other p2p network.

What the best way to defend artists is, and how to find ways of rewarding their work is a complex issue. For the past 50 years people have mostly accepted electronic work to be freely available via the radio or the television -- if interspersed with advertising. I don't want to look into this problem here. For some good ideas one should read and listen to Lawrence Lessig speak on the issue of copyright and the future of the network, or the French economist Jaques Attali write about 10 steps to solve this problem.

The Anti-Privacy/Liberty Law

However noble the issue of saving artists is, the real problem is how this law intends to go about doing what it set out to do. And if one looks at it this way, one soon gets a bad feeling of having entered a Orwellian 1984 like world! (See the public letter "Sci-Fi Against Hadopi") The law is not just anti-piracy, it is also anti-privacy, anti-freedom of expression, anti-freedom of all sorts. It is like a super DDT, a chemical that gets rid of all insects, but is so powerful that it also starts killing humans too.

The Hadopi law (pdf) will enable a newly established administrative higher authority to receive ip addresses from content owners, and ask telecommunication companies to reveal the owners of that ip address, to whom they will send 2 warning e-mails, telling them that something illegal is being downloaded or uploaded from their network, and asking them to secure this network. It seems that this warning will not even mention the work that is thought to have been illegally transmitted. After the third postal warning the internet connection will be cut off. At that point the citizen whose connection will be cut off, will be placed on a black list, making it impossible for him to seek any other telephone connection. As it will be extremly difficult for him to defend himself, he will then have to accept putting a yet undefined piece of software on his network that will snoop everything he is doing. One motion required this software to also sniff the email communications [ I am not absolutely clear this went through though.]

So in short, private companies will be able to anonymously denounce French citizens, leading their internet connection to be cut off, and then forcing them to install snooping software on their network to prove their innocence! If this is not an extreem invasion of privacy I do not know what is.

To help citizens who want to stay legal find their way around the internet, the Hadopi institution will distribute special labels for clean content. Good citizens will be safe if they don't stray too far from officially approved sites. If this is not an attack on freedom of information I don't know what is!

Where is the resistance?

So over the past few weeks as my concern grew I tried discussing this with a number of people. My initial thought was that an issue such as this would not get through in a country that demonstrates on nearly every issue that comes up. What stunned me was the silence, or the lack of interest in these issues by most people. It is instructive in my view to look at various types of responses I got.

The law cannot be implemented view

A lot of people are convinced that this law cannot be implemented. It is too crazy to be workable. Let us hope and pray that it is! The previous DADVSI law wich had set punishments of €300 000 and 3 years in prison, was so extreemly overwhelmingly powerful, that it indeed was not useable.

But that argument is very dangerous. The DADVSI may not yet have been used, but it may one day be. It is certainly what is spurring the current law, Hadopi, which comparatively seems innocuously kind. It only will ask you to install snooping software on your network. And since it is big brother the State asking this, and most people have no idea of what this implies, a lot of people may very well be frightened into accepting this. In any case it does not matter if it is not immediately applicable. It need only slowly with time work itself into people's lives. If enough people have this working, even if it is widely bypassed, then you can bet that in 10 years time, a movement will start where people who do have this installed will complain that some of their fellow citizens don't have it, and so push for harsher laws, perhaps going so far as to install this automatically on all networks.

We can bypass it

A lot of technically savvy people have convinced themselves they can bypass this easily.

So what if they do? The law need only frighten the majority into behaving a certain way. With time, and with the majority on their side, they can add other laws to make the undesirable behavior a lot more difficult. For example for those who think that anonymising software is going to be an easy way out, then they should look at the next law on the table: Llopsi which will give the State the power to block any IP address they need to. Now perhaps a good use case for Llopsi will be large anonymiser services.

Not fighting a law because one decides one will not follow it, is a very selfish and short term way of thinking. Sadly it seems to have grown in a large portion of the population that allowed itself to be tagged as Pirates. And for that selfishness we will all pay (yes, this is not just a French phenomenon, it seems to be a globally orchestrated movement - see for example blackout europe.)

It will be blocked by the constitution

It may be. But then it may not be. In any case it is extreemly worrying that a law should have to go so far as to require blocking by the constitution. Remember how Lawrence Lessig's attempt to get the Supreme court to change the provisions on copyright? It failed.

It will be blocked by the European Union

The EU is a Union of States, where the states have an overwhelming power. The EU does not have an army and cannot enforce much. France has the "cultural exception" it can use quite easily, and it may also be that similar problems are brewing in the rest of europe. Don't count on the EU. The parliament have done a great job there, but they don't have the final say, and they can be pressured. They have just watered down the telecom bill for example. The EU is not the USA.

The people will rise

This is unlikely given what I have seen. Many people don't yet really feel the power of the internet. They work with the internet via the expensive and limited cell phone networks, if at all. For them the Internet is cool, but not essential. Furthermore traditional media are still extremely powerful, and they can direct the message the way they wish. If they were not so powerful, laws such as this would not ever be able to go so far. I don't watch enough television to be able to tell if both sides of the debate here have been aired equally. My guess is not. [ Update: the major French television channel TF1 - the first french TV channel to be created, now privatised - was found to have sacked the head of their innovation center, for having sent privately a critical message on Hadopi to his Member of Parliament as reported by Libération. Thereby confirming the suspicion that other sides of this debate are not getting equal airing time]

But in the long term the people may very well rise. If the law were applied equally and without discrimination then businesses may very well be the first to rise up -- and leave. Later as the internet does become more and more part of every day life, the people themselves may rise. Most likely the younger generation will feel most strongly the difference between what is being asked and what is reasonable. They may feel these new chains most forcefully. Mass movements though are worrying, because when masses move, they can end up being very difficult to control, and can easily go the wrong direction.

All in all I think it would be much better for people in France to call their deputies before the law passes and urge them to change their mind, than to wait and fight this out on the streets.

Vote

There are a number of ways people can get their voice heard. One is the twitition petition. But I don't like the way it requires your password. Better I think to add the string JVoteContreHadopi to a blog post or tweet of yours. After a little time the vote should appear on this Google query where the votes can be counted. (We did this for when voting for Java 6 on OSX leopard.)

Monday Nov 10, 2008

Possible Worlds and the Web

Tim Berner's Lee pressed to define his creation said recently (from memory): "...my short definition is that the web is a mapping from URI's onto meaning".

Meaning is defined in terms of possible interpretations of sentences, also known as possible worlds. Possible Worlds under the guise of the 5th and higher dimensions are fundamental components of contemporary physics. When logic and physics meet we are in the realm of metaphysics. To find these two meet the basic architecture of the web should give anyone pause for thought.

The following extract from RDF Semantics spec is a good starting point:

The basic intuition of model-theoretic semantics is that asserting a sentence makes a claim about the world: it is another way of saying that the world is, in fact, so arranged as to be an interpretation which makes the sentence true. In other words, an assertion amounts to stating a constraint on the possible ways the world might be. Notice that there is no presumption here that any assertion contains enough information to specify a single unique interpretation. It is usually impossible to assert enough in any language to completely constrain the interpretations to a single possible world, so there is no such thing as 'the' unique interpretation of an RDF graph. In general, the larger an RDF graph is - the more it says about the world - then the smaller the set of interpretations that an assertion of the graph allows to be true - the fewer the ways the world could be, while making the asserted graph true of it.

A few examples may help here. Take the sentence "Barack Obama is the 44th president of the U.S.A". There are many many ways the world/universe/complete 4 dimensional space time continuum from the beginning of the universe to the end if there is one, yes, there are many ways the world could be and that sentence be true. For example I could not have bothered to write this article now, I could have written it just a little later, or perhaps even not at all. There is a world in which you did not read it. There is a world in which I went out this morning to get a baguette from one of the many delicious local french bakeries. The world could be all these ways and yet still Barack Obama be the 44th president of the United States.

In N3 we speak about the meaning of a sentence by quoting it with '{' '}'. So for our example we can write:

@prefix dbpedia: <http://dbpedia.org/resource/> .
{ dbpedia:Barack_Obama a dbpedia:President_of_the_United_States . } = :g1 .

:g1 is the set of all possible worlds in which Obama is president of the USA. The only worlds that are not part of that set, are the worlds where Obama is not President, but say McCain or Sarah Palin is. That McCain might have become president of the United States is quite conceivable. Both those meanings are understandable, and we can speak about both of them

@prefix dbpedia: <http://dbpedia.org/resource/> .
{ dbpedia:Barack_Obama a dbpedia:President_of_the_United_States . } = :g1 .
{ dbpedia:John_McCain a dbpedia:President_of_the_United_States . } = :g2 .
:g1 hopedBy :george .
:g2 feardedBy :george .
:g1 fearedBy :jane .

Ie. we can say that George hopes Barack Obama to be the 44th president of the United States, but that Jane fears it.

Assume wikipedia had a resource for each member of the list of presidents of the USA, and that we were pointing to the 44th element above. Then even though we can speak about :g1 and :g2, there is no world that fits them both: The intersection of both :g1 and :g2 is { } , the empty set, whose extension according to David Lewis' book on Mereology is the fusion of absolutely all possibilities. The thing that is everything and everywhere and around at all times. Ie. you don't make any distinction when you say that: you don't say anything.

The definition of meaning in terms of possible worlds, make a few things very simple to explain. Implication being one of them. If every president has to be human, then


@prefix log: <http://www.w3.org/2000/10/swap/log#> .
{ dbpedia:Barack_Obama a dbpedia:President_of_the_United_States . } log:implies { dbpedia:Barack_Obama a dbpedia:Human . }

Ie the set of possible worlds in which Obama is a president of the United States is a subset of the set of worlds in which he is Human. There are worlds after all where Barack is just living a normal Lawyer's life.

So what is this mapping from URIs to meaning that Tim Berners Lee is talking about? I interpret him as speaking of the log:semantics relation.


@prefix rdf: <http://www.w3.org/1999/02/22-rdf-syntax-ns#> .
log:semantics a rdf:Property;
         :label "semantics";
         :comment """The log:semantics of a document is the formula.
         achieved by parsing representation of the document.
          For a document in Notation3, log:semantics is the
          log:parsedAsN3 of the log:contents of the document.
          For a document in RDF/XML, it is parsed according to the
          RDF/XML specification to yield an RDF formula [snip]""";
         :domain foaf:Document;
         :range log:Formula .

Of course it is easier to automate the mapping from resources that return RDF based representations, but log:semantics can be applied to any document. Any web page, even those written in natural languages, have some semantics. It is just that they currently require very advanced wetware processors to interpret them. These can indeed be very specialised wetware processors, as for example those that one meets at air ports.

Wednesday Nov 05, 2008

The coming postmodern era

Kevin Kelly argued convincingly that the growth in technology is creating a new world wide super organism, something Nova Spivack likes to call One Mind (OM). I argue here that this One Mind will have to be a postmodern mind: it will have to take points of view as a fundamental given. In other words it is a world of Many Many Minds (MMM) that is being born.

Concepts can take a long time from their birth to their acceptance by society. Democritus reasoned in 400BC that the earth was round, that there were other stars, and that they had planets which had life. It took a 2400 years, a trip to the moon, satellite television, mass air travel to turn these deep insights into common sense.

I think one can make the case that the massive intrusion of the Personal Computer in the 1980ies into huge numbers of household and businesses led to the strengthening of the concepts of 'efficiency' and the self. The metaphor of the brain as computer took hold silencing previous behaviorist intuitions. The computer could be programmed. It could think. Some could think faster than others. Every year they became more efficient. The PC was the icon of the age. It was alone and did not communicate. It was the era of selfish competition: the 'me' generation. As Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of Britain at the time said: "There is no such thing as society".

In the 1990ies the internet entered public consciousness, and with it the realization of how the network was overtaking the PC in importance. Information moved from being mostly on a computer to being mostly in the network cloud. The network was slow, so the experience people had was primarily of being connected to information and commerce. The experience of globalization of commerce and information blended with a modernistic view of the future unity of humanity moving towards one end: the end of history.

Behind the growth of the web and the internet, hidden to many, lay the strength of community. Unix, Linux, Apache, Open Source software, that had been the cause of the huge growth of the Network became more apparent, and became visible to the majority in the form of the read/write web under the banner of blogging. The last 8 years have been the discovery of the web as a platform for each individual voice to be heard, of community and mostly protected social networks. The end of the 20th century was also the end of the read only society as Lawrence Lessig argues so well. Millions of different points of view came to express themselves on innumerable topics.

Where next? What will happen as we move from a human readable read/write web to a machine readable one? What happens when we manage to break through the autism of current tools? What happens when software becomes widely available that can ask you if you want to reason over data you believe, or if you'd rather look at what your parents believe, or what republicans tend to believe, or what your children believe? This is as I argued recently the fundamentally new thing the semantic web is making possible; something unlike anything that humanity has ever witnessed before. The first tools that can make the step out of autism.

Of course, we mostly all come to understand around the age of 4 that other people believe different things from us, and that different people may think incompatible things about the world. But what happens when this everyday intuition becomes mechanized, objectified in tools that each year become more efficient? Most people always knew that society was very important, but the growth of the PC in the 1980ies created a strong icon in public discourse around which concepts of the self could cluster. In a similar way the growth of software that can point out contradictions between different points of views expressed in a distributed way around the web, would by doing this place a huge emphasis on the notion of points of views. If it were to make exploring these views easy, easier than it is for a normal human being living a normal life nowadays, then we can imagine that people may start exploring points of views much more often, more easily, in more detail, without thinking too much of it. Just like people now may drive 35 miles to work because they can, we can imagine people thinking more about others because some of the hard work has now been automated for them. Discovering conflicts in belief before they lead to conflicting actions could remove a lot of problems before they occur. ( Hopefully it won't lead us into some crazy world such as that described in the movie Being John Malkovitch ).

So how does this fit in with Post Modernism? Well, post modernism is a fuzzy concept, possibly even fuzzier than Web 2.0 or for that matter Web 3.0. It arose out of the disillusionment with all deterministic explanations of the future given by many of the western schools of thought, from christian evangelism to Marxism, Futurism, Consumerism ... Weary of all totalitarian explanations of everything, baffled by their sheer number, thinkers came to look at the different theories not from the inside, but from the outside, Instead of looking for a theory in which to believe trying to find a theory that would subsume all others, postmodernism, as I understand it, accepted the multiplicity of viewpoints, and found it more interesting to understand their differences. By putting more emphasis on understanding than on Truth, it was possible to look at the multiplicity of different points of view in the world. The pygmy in his tribe was no longer someone in need of conversion to the Truth, but someone one should try to understand in his context. This was felt by many to lead to a dangerous relativism, where the notion of truth itself seemed like it was loosing its meaning. In fact truth has never been better and more precisely defined: It is at its core a disquotation mechanism. According to Tarski's definition of truth:

"Snow is white" is true, in English if and only if snow is white .
Or in N3
  @prefix log: <http://www.w3.org/2000/10/swap/log#> .

  { { ?s ?r ?o } a log:Truth } <=> { ?s ?r ?o } .
or in SPARQL
PREFIX log: <http://www.w3.org/2000/10/swap/log#>
CONSTRUCT { ?subject ?relation ?object }
WHERE {
   GRAPH ?g { ?subject ?relation ?object }
   ?g a log:Truth .
}

Ie, if you hear someone say something, and you believe what they said to be true then you believe what they said. That is so simple it is self evident. So what has it got us? Well believing something is not neutral. Because we infer things from what we believe, and because we act on what we believe, to believe something is also to act and to be predisposed to act. And that is where the contact with reality ends up being felt at some point or another. If someone shouts "Une voiture arrive a ta gauche" in French and you understand it then you might add the following to your database:

{ _:c a :Car; 
      :moving [ :closeProximityTo :you ] .
  _:c positionleftOf :you .
} saidBy :joe .

At that point you just believe that Joe believes this. It makes a big difference when you come to believe the same content, namely

[] a :Car;
   :moving [ :closeProximityTo :you ] .
  _:c positionleftOf :you .

The disquotation mechanism (In N3 the removing of the '{' '}' ) is therefore an essential part of communication. One should not believe everything one hears - one may after all have misunderstood what was said. To remember who said what, and when one heard it is essential to good thinking. And sometimes who is right is really not that important anyway. Sometimes understanding is more important still. And that means putting oneself into other person's shoes, trying to look at things from their point of view - in essence, realizing that there are many many minds (MMM). So again what will happen when all tools we use every day make it as easy for us to explore points of view as it is to look at a web page, or take the car to work?

And where does this leave the absolute conception of Truth? Metcalf's Law gives a good explanation of the value of such a conception. Remember that this law states that the value of a network grows exponentially with the size of the network. The search for the Truth was always the search for an explanation that could explain as many things as possible: i.e. to create the biggest possible network, to predict as much as possible, to englobe all points of view, to create a framework that could link all of them together.

But what if the largest possible network has to take into account points of views as basic constitutive elements of the network?

Friday Sep 12, 2008

RDF: Reality Distortion Field

Here is Kevin Kelly's presentation on the next 5000 days on the web, in clear easy English that every member of the family can watch and understand. It explains what the semantic web, also known as Web 3.0, is about and how it will affect technology and life on earth. Where is the web going? I can find no fault in this presentation.

This is a great introduction. He explains how Metcalf's law brought us to the web of documents and is leading us inexorably to a web of things, in which we will be the eyes and the hands of this machine called the internet that never stops running.
For those with a more technical mind, who want to see how this is possible, follow this up with a look at the introductory material to RDF.

Warning: This may change the way you think. Don't Panic! Things will seem normal after a while.

Sunday Sep 09, 2007

authentic paranoid fantasies

On 1 July 1936 Salvador Dali gave a fantastic presentation at the New Burlington Galleries in London. He arrived carrying a billiard queue in one hand , accompanied by 2 large dogs and determined to present his talk "Authentic Paranoid Fantasies" in a diving suite.

I read this story a year ago in Berlin whilst browsing the philosophy section of a large bookstore. On page 156 of "Spheres III: Foam", Peter Sloterdijk - a famous contemporary German philosopher, who now teaches in Vienna - quotes the following passage from Dali's Memoirs "Comment on Devient Dali", which in turn I have translated for your enjoyment below:

I had determined to give a talk during the exhibition in a diving suite as a representation of the subconscious. I was placed in the armor and even fitted with heavy lead shoes, making it completely impossible for me to move my legs. I had to be carried onto the stage. Then they placed the helmet on my head and screwed it tightly shut. I started my talk behind the thick glass in front of a microphone that clearly could not record anything. Nevertheless my mimicry fascinated the public. Soon though I ran out of air, my face turned red, then blue, and my eyes turned upwards. Clearly they had forgotten to provide me with access to air, and I was close to asphyxiation. I signaled to my friends through desperate gestures that my situation was becoming critical. One of them ran for some scissors and tried without success to puncture the costume; another one tried to unscrew the helmet, and as that did not succeed he started banging on the screws with a hammer... Two men tried to tear off the helmet and a third one continued whacking the metal so hard that I nearly lost consciousness.
On the stage one could only see a mass of wildly moving hands, from which I emerged now and again like a dismembered puppet, and my helmet sounded like a gong. The public applauded heavily to this successful Daliesque melodrama, which in their eyes clearly represented how consciousness was trying to communicate with the unconscious. I though nearly died during this triumph. As they finally ripped off my helmet I was as white as Jesus as he returned after his forty days of fasting from the desert.

Wednesday Jun 20, 2007

Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching

On Saturday, I walked into a bookstore in Boston, and decided to read something different for a change (I had been reading some very interesting popular science books). I decided on poetry. One of the books I picked up was Tao Te Ching. I walked out of the store down to the Boston public garden lagoon, sat down and started reading.
I did not stop until I was well through one third of the poems. No wonder this book has survived over 2600 years! It is as youthful as ever, as readable as the best dialogs by Plato, though perhaps at the opposite spectrum of philosophy. Where Plato or Confucius are Yang, Lao Tze is Yin. They are complimentary.

Here is the first poem:

The Tao that can be followed is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The namelesss is the origin of heaven and earth
While naming is the origin of the myriad things .
Therefore, always desireless, you see the mystery
Ever desiring, you see the manifestations.
These two are the same --
When they appear they are named differently.

This sameness is the mystery,
Mystery within mystery;

The door to all marvels.

Why did this book jump out at me now? I have read it twice by now.

Update Sept 2008: Another very interesting version of the Tao, with a long introduction on the huge difference between the translations, is the French Philosophes Taoistes, vol I in the luxurious La Pleiade edition. Just compare the 170 translations of the first poem to get an idea of the scope of the differences.

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