Wednesday, July 30, 2008

On beliefs in mostly a roundabout way

Enlightenment is emptiness. For a scion of the modernist paradigm, that's a hard truth to accept, but accept it you must.

Enlightenment narrows the space for belief. Belief is an odd word. We use the same word for two different, but related, concepts. When I say I believe that Paris is the capital of France, or that 2 plus 2 is 4, or that rust is iron oxide, I am saying something different from saying that I believe in a god, or that life has a purpose, or that I will have an afterlife.

The first set of beliefs are conventions that you can know or not know, but you cannot challenge. You cannot have a true belief that Toulouse is the capital of France (if you are sane) unless you simply do not know properly what France is. But of course you do know that--no one who reads this is that lacking in knowledge, or at least I wouldn't have thought so--but doubtless for each of you we could find something that is true by convention but you do not know it.

And it should be clear that this kind of belief does not involve a judgement. To be clear, consider the difference between saying I believe that Medoc comes from southeast France, from the Bordeaux region, and saying I believe that Medoc is the world's finest wine. (I think also that it is hard to describe it as a lie if you are wrong in the first case, because you would not ordinarily lie about facts by convention, and if you are wrong, you would not be assumed to be lying, just mistaken; but in the second case, it is easy to lie, and you may be assumed to be some of the time, because you can easily misrepresent your beliefs of this type. But am I lying if I say that Medoc is the world's finest wine? I do not actually hold that belief--I don't have an opinion. Am I lying if you agree and not if you don't? We often believe that people are lying simply because what they believe is different from what we believe. Indeed, you can lie about the former type of belief more readily when your correspondent doesn't know the truth, and your lie should correspondingly be more believable: if you do not know where Medoc is, I can likely tell you that it is in Burgundy and you have no reason not to believe it. What generally stops us from doing this is the likelihood of your being unmisled.)

But increasing the set of beliefs of the first kind tends to leave you unable to have the second kind. The world, when explicable, becomes mundane, and the space in which beliefs in the intangible can live is narrowed. In a sense, you stop caring whether there is more to it: the solution you have is complete in itself and the world becomes manageable.


I don't know where I was going with that. My point is quite small though: as you learn more about how things work, you have less space for fantasies about how things work.

So if I know that I am a purely physical being, and can explain the appearance of a self purely mechanically, I no longer have space in my worldview for an eternal life.

Which is a pisser.

But on the other hand, I sometimes think to myself, well, you don't do anything much with your life now, so what use would more of it be? And I have a clear insight that this is true of any one of us: our achievements will be dust given the right timeframe. This seems to me to excuse lack of purpose or ambition. Purpose is ridiculous in a huge universe, and ambition meaningless in a life with a limit that is so short.


I was thinking today about Searle's Chinese room. I disagree with Searle that semantics is separate from syntax, as it happens. I believe "understanding", in the sense he is using it, is an epiphenomenon of the processing of information by syntactical rules, not something that exists as a thing in itself.

In other words, you understand Chinese because you can do certain sorts of mental processing, not because there is a property of understanding Chinese that is somehow an overlay on that processing.

I am interested in Searle's Chinese gym answer to Churchland's connectionist attack on his thought experiment.

Imagine, if you will, a Chinese gymnasium, with many monolingual English speakers working in parallel, producing output indistinguishable from that of native Chinese speakers: each follows their own (more limited) set of instructions in English. Still, Searle insists, obviously, none of these individuals understands; and neither does the whole company of them collectively. It's intuitively utterly obvious, Searle maintains, that no one and nothing in the revised "Chinese gym" experiment understands a word of Chinese either individually or collectively. Both individually and collectively, nothing is being done in the Chinese gym except meaningless syntactic manipulations from which intentionality and consequently meaningful thought could not conceivably arise.

I am not clear though why the human brain should be considered to be any different from the Chinese gym. The instructions that neurons follow are like the instructions in English that the people in the gym receive, and their outputs are like the sentences of Chinese that Searle's Chinese room produces. The neurons do not understand the process.

Searle wants an explanation for the understanding that a Chinese speaker has of Chinese. But he is making the assumption that the Chinese speaker does understand Chinese without plainly explaining what understanding it is and how it differs from simply being able to produce it by following certain rules.

Why does that explanation lack? Because Searle assumes it. He assumes that there just is a mind that just does think, and that thinking does not need to be defined in this case (well, we all know what it feels like, at least, so we know it as a phenomenon).

I've never been much convinced by arguments that piles of stones and cardboard tubes cannot think, because I do not see how a pile of stones and a cardboard tube are sufficiently different from a bunch of neurons that one can say the latter is capable of something the former is not just because of some special factor one has that the other doesn't. (By special factor, I mean not some ordinary factor such as being organic, because I think Searle and his kin would claim that a machine made out of hydrocarbons could not think either.)

In other words, I am not a dualist.


Eastern religions see enlightenment as the extinction of the self. You wake up to reality (which is unitary) and realise it has no space for the self. Science is proving Eastern thought right in that respect.

But it is, imo, massively wrong in many other respects. Most religions address a couple of fundamental questions: how did I get here and why should I live in a particular way? (The second question is not so much, what is a good life? although that is a precursor to it.) It seems that you could pretty much define any metaphysics as a religion so long as it answers those questions. The formal aspects of religion are in many ways just frills.

But without ego, it's hard to see why I should live in any particular way, or why how you got here is a particularly difficult question.

If we extinguish the self, it's hard to see why we need to escape becoming. If I am not, I did not ever become and will not become again.

(Before I receive a spanking from someone who understands Buddhism, please be clear that I understand how these contradictions are resolved; but I reject the resolution.)

Partly, of course, you need a theory of afterlife to provide a motivation for moral behaviour. We have motivation on a mundane level for cooperative behaviour (and this is arguably sufficient for a moral code, particularly if it is reinforced with a range of punitive behaviours that can be expected from others) but we do not have a motivation for being good as an aim in itself.

There is for sure a contradiction between nonself and becoming, and I don't think the analogy of a candle lighting another candle explains it away. I think that in the development of Eastern thought, it's likely that the concept of a continuing self must once have been established but was abandoned. We feel like we are not extinguishable, that we are something separate from the material world, separate even from our own bodies (even if you are not a dualist, the horse and jockey metaphor likely works for you, because it feels somewhat right).


We all have many beliefs that we believe to be of the first type but we do not know the evidence for them. I am not sure whether they are a third type of belief. I suppose they are. The first are nearly all "beliefs by convention": 2 + 2 is 4 because that is what those symbols are. I do not know whether 2 + 2 = 4 is the same thing as "two rocks plus two rocks are four rocks" but I think it is at least possible that it isn't. (I have been reading about number theory and it's quite striking that some of the fundamental numbers are not readily expressible in our number system: by which I mean they are not "closable". Pi is almost ineffable! You can describe its effects; you can explain methods of deriving it; but you cannot say what it, itself, is. It's just pi. And by "closable", I mean that you cannot describe it in finite terms by our number system: the description of pi cannot be smaller than our universe, even though pi can be contained by it. The same is true of e and i. Maybe they have a kind of meaning for mathematicians that they do not for me; I do not know what to make of their oddness, their "unclosability" (I am not sure whether there is any difference between that and "irrationality"). Anyway, number theory resembles a bag of clever tricks to make numbers work more than it does a description of anything "real". Anyone who has looked into how quite simple theorems were proved will know what I mean.)

I mean something like the big bang. I was talking to A today about the big bang, and she asked, as people are wont to do, how something could come out of nothing. Now, I know that something did not come out of nothing, because there wasn't even nothing, but I don't know what that means.

I believe it was like that but I don't know why you would believe it was like that.

I'm not in general fond of belief by trust (although it's a necessary outcome of the specialisation of knowledge that is a necessary outcome of the sheer volume of stuff we know) but I do not know how I would be able to acquire, or having acquired, understand, the evidence. I mean, I can go to Paris and verify that it is the capital of France, or I can take the view that it is because everyone says so (a sort of "black swan" theory of Paris' being the capital of France: a black swan disproves "swans are white" and someone's saying that Toulouse is the capital of France may not be a disproof but at least provides some evidence, however tiny, that Paris might not be--which allows the meaning of "is capital of" to be extended sufficiently to be useful in both "Paris is the capital of France" and "Jerusalem is the capital of Israel").


I think that if music has meaning then it disproves Searle.

I think you can view music as being absolute, but we interpret it as having meaning by some mechanism that does not belong in music, or you can view it as having meaning within itself.

Is it clear that numbers are the same? I think it should be. Either they are meaningful because their meaning lies within them and the processes that elaborate them, or they are meaningful because we apply an external semantics to them.

I do not think that music has meaning but I think Searle is still wrong.

There is no contradiction in this section and I defy anyone to find one. If you think there is one, you are simply unable to understand that disproofs are not limited by the nonexistence of any particular disproof (although that does not mean that they cannot be limited--although in general, they are unlimited: in other words, you can't prove a thing true because you do not know whether there really are no black swans, only that none of the previous swans was in fact black, even though some were claimed to be). In other words, even if I can't disprove Searle this way, it doesn't mean he cannot be disproved in another way. This truth is precisely what creationists rely on, and why they cannot be dismissed finally. It's also why PZ Myers is an idiot, I'm sorry to say, and Dawkins too. Each of them is correct that there are no black swans in evidence but each makes the mistake of thinking that this proves there are no black swans. God can create a black swan at any point that he wishes though, and there is nothing PZ can do to prove that wrong. That is simply an axiom of reason, painful though it may be to accept fully. God can exist: I do not believe that the belief space for God will ever be sufficiently small, even if it does seem small enough right now.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Fair shares

Ultimately, the best way to reduce illegal filesharing will be for record companies to realise that the days of ripping us off for 30 bucks a CD are now over, and they need to find a new revenue model.

We want artists to get paid. No one thinks that the guy who puts the effort in should not. But we also know that the last guy to get paid is that guy.

The record industry used to work by controlling the flow of music from artist to consumer. In the pre-Internet world, it was just too difficult for artists to reach a wide audience if they did not have the support of the record company. This allowed the industry to exploit the artists thoroughly. The more a person relieson another to provide the setting for making a living, the more they can be exploited. And record companies are not in the art business--don't kid yourself--they're in the money business.

Now though, the record industry cannot control the flow of music and consequently they cannot exploit artists as thoroughly. They are doomed, dinosaurs in the cyber age. Sooner or later, artists will realise that they no longer need record companies: there's a moment of realisation in today's music world--whether consumer or producer--which comes when you realise that all you cared about was the music, not the packaging, just as really when it comes to washing powder, all you actually care about is that your clothes get clean.

So we realise that we have no real preference for CDs over computer files, and artists will realise that they don't actually need much in the way of marketing or distribution, and whe you take them out, there's nothing left but a pretty cover. Artists will realise that they can just cut out the middleman and do it for themselves (and some do). New entrepreneurs may arise, who are making less off the back of artists, but because they have lower overhead, still make a profit.

But EMI is doomed. Because really it doesn't have a relationship with the artists, or with us. It just feeds on both. And its response to the new paradigm of music consumption is to try to punish us, not to try to serve us better.

It may be that some sort of licence, as suggested by Billy Bragg, will allow the likes of EMI to make money from music temporarily--and I think I would be willing to pay 50 bucks a month to download music (although you can picture how it would work: there'd still be "premium content" and so on), but this can't be the long-term solution, if only because not everyone will pay, and once filesharing is legitimised in this way, people will be asking why they should pay when others don't.

There is still money to be made in merchandise, and it may be that the EMIs will find ways to make more from that, using music as a sort of "loss leader". I can envisage EMI giving you the Arctic Monkeys for free, because if a band is successful in this paradigm, their enormous name recognition and market penetration will allow you to sell a lot of t-shirts, and if EMI can't find a way to shoehorn advertising into free music, it shouldn't be in any sort of business. Ultimately, this is probably the future of music, just as it is for television: the advertiser pays, not the consumer (and I'm looking forward to the day that the BBC carries ads on its online service, if it doesn't already, because then it will quickly become available worldwide: reach is key for advertisers).

The British government is trying to change the risk/reward ratio for downloaders. Currently, as most of us know, we can either pay 30 bucks for CDs or pay nothing and risk a big fine. That risk is quite small, because the record companies do not want to spend millions pursuing grannies and teens for a few grand apiece. The publicity is terrible and the payoff is not enough to make it worthwhile. They occasionally pursue someone pour encourager les autres, and try to shut down the major sites, but they recognise the impossibility of seriously affecting filesharers. We are distributed; there are no "Mr Bigs" that you can take down and destroy the network, because the system is thoroughly decentralised. Also, they are well aware that so many of us do it that it hurts their image to be seen suing people who are doing something that has become as common as blogging.

So the government wants to use ISPs to punish downloaders, or to frighten them at least. It's a bit like Cnut trying to hold back the tide. Music comes in the form of easily exchangeable files. We'll find a way to do it, no matter what you do. And slow us down on one ISP and we'll find another: does Baroness Vadera not realise that word will spread that ISP X hurts downloaders and ISP Y doesn't? It will become a selling point. The government will end up having to act against ISPs, and will be painted as taking the side of one industry against another, all so that it can punish teens who can't afford to pay for music in the old paradigm. Good luck getting those youngsters out to vote for you, Mr Broon, when you take away their 50 Cent.

In any case, the day is done for record companies, even if reactionaries like Vadera don't want to accept it. It's time for the model to change. As he often does, Billy Bragg nails it:

In an ideal world, such royalties or the blanket licence fee would not be paid to music companies themselves but to an independent collection agency that would pay the money directly to artists. The music industry treats the internet as a threat, whereas for artists it gives us an opportunity to get closer to our audience than ever before. We must be very, very careful that we don't alienate those fans and make it impossible for the next generation of singer-songwriters to have viable careers.

In an ideal world, we'd realise that EMI has had its day. We don't like EMI, and eventually we'll get what we do like: artists paid for their work and fatcat executives on the dole. But until then, the government will do what it is paid to do: not give us what we like, but try to coerce us into continuing to supply an outdated revenue stream for the record industry's Cnuts.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Enhance my bitch up

So it's to the great amusement of the office that I crusade against the misuse of "enhance". I say "crusade", but what I mean is that it is one of the words I routinely strike out and replace with a more suitable word.

It's a losing battle, of course, so why bother fighting it? And isn't it odd that I should care, when I am a descriptivist? Surely, if everyone uses "enhance" to mean "increase" or "improve", that's fine with me?

Words have meanings that shift. We all know that. Absent an Academie to fix their meanings (and even with one, as French pedants often bemoan), words will mean whatever we wish them to. Effectively, meaning is a tyranny of the majority: if most of us think "fond" means "enamoured of", rather than "a bit crazy", then that's what it means; if we think "nice" means "agreeable", rather than "fine" or "narrow", then that's what it means. This is not, of course, a random process. There are "gatekeepers" who fight meaning change, "meaning issuers" who create new meanings (or new words) and others who have a great deal of influence. The chief subs of newspapers write style guides that govern their rags, and their personal choices gain weight by repetition on every page of the papers that employ them, sometimes long after they have left/been sacked/died (and some more so than others because they are aped by others: the Economist style guide, for instance, or here in Australia, Wiley's Style Guide).

Descriptivists do not mind meaning shift in itself. After all, we accept that usage rules over prescription. Language is after all a tool, not a monument. Its value is in its use, not as a thing of beauty to be left on a pedestal and admired. But that doesn't mean that we necessarily like it.

The reason is simple. Words have what you might call a "semantic field". This is a conceptual space that represents everything that word means. Some words--"set" is the archetypal example in English--have very wide semantic fields. You could argue that a word that means so many different things actually has a constellation of semantic fields, which overlap only somewhat. That seems a reasonable view. Other words have very narrow semantic fields. "Angioplasty" only means one thing (although it actually describes a whole set of angioplasties, they all have a common feature).

Arguably, "angioplasty" is a more powerful word than "set". It is so much more precise. We consider English a rich language because it allows us to be precise: we can say almost exactly what we mean and be understood closely because we have many words that we could have used, but chose those with the meanings we intended. Few other words even border on "angioplasty"'s semantic field. There are other "plasty"'s but they are not the same kind of thing. There are other ways to say the same thing, but not in one word.

"Set" by way of contrast overlaps with many other words, duplicating their meanings, sharing spaces with many.

This is not a problem. Languages evolve homophones, and words take on new meanings. This too is part of their richness even: having a choice for more general words is useful, particularly for the stylist.

But what does create a problem is the abandonment of a semantic space. "Enhance" meant something quite specific (and when I use it, it still does): it means to increase or improve in terms of a quality. In other words, if you "enhance" something, you might magnify it or change the type of thing that it is; if you improve it, you change its nature, rather than simply making it better; if you increase it, you don't just make more of it, the more is something different. It's hard to explain what it means precisely, because, precisely, "enhance" means it!

Using it as a synonym for "increase" or "improve" simply destroys the semantic space it occupied. There is no longer a word for what "enhance" meant.

Well, so what? In a hundred years, the former meaning of "enhance" will reside in history's dustbin, alongside those of "fond" and "nice". Yeah, true, but I write now, and edit now, and preserving the sharpness of my tools is part of my task.

And, above and beyond that consideration, language is ground down into a grey mass if jargon goes unchallenged. Everything is "enhanced", "leveraged", "assisted" into oblivion. I have edited stuff that literally means nothing. People are employed to communicate precisely nothing. It's particularly horrible here in Australia, where a sort of "educated speak" has a grip on just about everyone who has ever been to university. Their textbooks are written in turgid, meaningless jargon, and they proceed to write it too. Writing in "educated speak" is a simulation of being educated: it's how the educated demonstrate that they have an education.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Zenella and I shared a pain au raisin. On the container in Woolworths it said "Product of Belgium" but you know, it can't have been baked there. I wondered whether they supplied a dough, or a recipe, or what the sign could mean.

But it was an acceptable pain au raisin, although the custardy goo in the middle didn't seem like anything I'd expect to find in a French raisin bread. But it does go to show, you can find good things in small amounts in strange places.

Zenella told Mrs Zen, which was odd. I realised it had been important to her, but I struggled to see why. Maybe because we had shared a moment that was untouched by the twins. Maybe because she was simply moved by her father's sharing something so delicious that he could be expected to keep it for himself.

I have an unimaginably fierce love for Zenella. And I thought you could not do that three times. But how you can! I have embraces that are nirvana right now, small spaces in which I can stop everything. I have a transit so exquisite that I can only dream of finding the poetry that can describe it.

Did I not then already succeed?

Because I worry about success. Not in a particularly worldly way, but because I feel that I should have succeeded. Somewhere, at something.

I can't help feeling that I have downshifted in goals. Now I want to achieve something banal (yet weirdly, given that poker players can escape the world of work, the outcomes are not so banal). Worse, because I have a love of kneecapping myself, I could be there, but I won't give myself credit for it. I become a cringing Uriah Heep if anyone says I have a clue at poker, yet I worry about ways in which I am not so good. Sigh. Anyway, I won't ever regret the time I've spent on it, because it has been a fine challenge, and I have proven able to do it decently well.

If I were 20 years younger, I would be overjoyed at where I am. I talk to people all the time whose goals I could achieve right now.

But I am 20 years older. It is one of the worst things in our lives that our youths pass and we cannot call them back. We lie to ourselves that wisdom compensates for youth, but it does not. We would love to be 20 again. (Although, I suppose, we would wish to be the us of now in our 20-year-old bodies. We know we could do it better if we ran it twice).


Naughtyman's favourite toy is his vacuum cleaner. I cannot even begin to fathom what is in his mind. Why would he love to vacuum? I can understand wanting to please your mother, but how would it have impressed on him that she would appreciate his vacuuming the place?

But here is a lesson, I suppose. You cannot figure out what is alien to you. You can laugh at it, love it or hate it, accept it or fight it, but you can't understand it.

He is a funny little boy. He is cheeky and fun. He was quiet as a toddler but he is not at all broody or dark. He has quite stunning looks and an engaging lisp.

The best advice I had about blogging was not to journalise my kids. But I enjoy putting into words that they are beautiful. Not least because they so clearly illustrate to me the limitations of words. I cannot describe Naughtyman's funny dance, a blur of legs and hipsway; I cannot describe the feeling of his head, which he lays on your shoulder whenever you pick him up; I cannot describe the throaty laugh he reserves for the deeply funny.


Here is someone with balls. Doing the right thing when you know it's going to hurt takes balls. But you know, not doing it hurts more. It eats at you, gnaws away at your sense of self, makes you rethink who and what you are.

I know I've done the right thing when I don't get gnawed. I say this not because I'm incapable of moral judgements before I act, but because I so often don't make them. I'm more often guided by impulse than reason. You'd think, given how prone I am to agonising over the simplest decisions, that I would not consider myself to be impulsive. But life brings a whole spectrum of decisions.

And I think that the least you can do is get right which ones you can make in a snap and which you need to think a lot about. It's a greater flaw, imo, to get that wrong than to make decisions that, looking back, were wrong.

Being wrong is, after all, not a sin, so long as it is the outcome of the due deliberation, rather than of pure ignorance, or choosing wrongly when you know better. (Like most things, I can relate this to poker: it's not bad to shove all your chips in wide when you think a guy will call tightly and he surprises you with a loose call; but it's wrong to shove all your chips in wide when you know he mostly calls loose enough to make it bad. And, to my mind, it's unforgivable simply to be clueless about how you should play a game if you want to win.)


"How come when it's us it's an abortion, but when it's chickens, it's an omelette?":

"Chickens are decent people."

Carlin on rights is spot on too. He talks about the Japanese-American internees in the second world war. They had no rights at all. Their "rights" were snatched away. Carlin says, if what you have can be snatched away, you do not have rights, you have privileges.

And they are becoming fewer every day.

We must watch the small things, because they snowball. Their world is not much to do with ours, but they can make the two collide. We have to watch the small things, and do the small things we can to avoid it, so that we can live on, loving our kids, finding brief, tiny moments of joy and epiphany to make it worth our while.