Relay: Interesting Stuff From the Last Month

Last month has been busy, and I haven’t figured out how to blog anything original. But that’s ok, because I have a bunch of links for you! These are things I found interesting, provocative, inspiring, or funny in the last month. I’m even going to categorize them for you:

Science

  • Honeybees are found to interact with quantum fields – a researcher noticed that bee dances trace a 2-dimensional projection of formulas of some kind of quantum math. Bee dances seemed pretty arbitrary before, and now this researcher claims that bees may be ‘in touch’ with quantum fields. If true, this would be interesting and awesome.
  • Scientists find evidence that many universes exist – I’ve always thought that “many universes” is a contradiction in terms, but hey. It turns out that our particular ‘universe’ may be just one of many ‘cosmic bubbles’ colliding around in some vast ‘multiverse’. I don’t believe this yet, and won’t until people define their terms better.
  • Thunderstorms generate anti-matter – powerful thunderstorms can generate crazy gamma ray bursts scientists think may be accompanied by anti-matter. That would be anti-awesome.

Philosophy

  • Albert Einstein writes on science and religion – some good stuff in here, especially about the awe and surprise of finding that nature has rational foundations. Also other general philosophy of science points. I still disagree with his overall statement, which is that the historically-bound bits of religion should be discarded, since he appears to take for granted their fundamental falsity.
  • Minimalism works – apparently, someone on the Internet made fun of minimalism. The article I linked is a rebuttal which I found concise and useful. Yay minimalism!

Culture

  • Suburban sprawl sucks – and it’s bad for you too. I confess this was too long for me to read completely, but I did get that the author is an advocate of getting rid of zoning laws. I, too, advocate thus.
  • The dangers of externalizing knowledge – this is a favorite topic of mine. What happens when we stop learning everything except how to Google? It’s possible that that is indeed the one skill which leads to success in life, and therefore will encourage social evolution to continue in the current trend. I’m just afraid that learning is a holistic process of shaping the entire person, body and soul. What happens when we postpone this shaping until we load Wikipedia? What will our unshaped minds do with that information, anyway? I could go on. Nice to see this on TechCrunch.
  • Caring for your introvert – this guy makes some rather grand statements concerning introversion. Given that I’m an introvert, I’m inclined to agree with the whole ‘introverts are superior’ thing, except I know it’s false. Good article anyway, despite being overblown. I also think the Enneagram could account for a lot of what he is describing, without as much polarization (or arrogance, for that matter).

Theology

  • Agnostic Christianity – doubt isn’t bad. In fact, it’s an unavoidable part of faith. Embrace and respect it!
  • The Seven: not exactly deacons – what happens when the Apostles decide they’re too important to wait tables? God uses the waiters instead. Or something like that… some good potential pastor-skewering in these passages.

Food

  • A coder’s guide to coffee – I am a coder and I love coffee. Therefore, I love this article. I just need to find a way to roast my own beans in Oxford…
  • L-Theanine in tea and not coffee – apparently this amino acid enables our bodies to use caffeine in a much more zenly awesome way. Where is it naturally found? Not coffee (damn!) but tea. If I used coffee as a mind hack, maybe I’d switch to tea. Unfortunately, I drink coffee because (a) it tastes really good, and (b) I’m physically and psychologically addicted to it. Oh well.
  • A hacker’s guide to tea – If I were to switch this is the guide that I’d use! One thing I particularly liked: camomille is not real tea! Ha, I always knew camomille sucked.

Random

  • Trimensional – a 3d scanner for the iphone. I haven’t tried it, but… really cool idea! I’m also not sure what I’d do with a 3d model of my face. I’m also not sure why they used the guy they did for the screenshots. Yikes!
  • How to draw an owl – Click through and see the picture. Hilarious. And also a good prompt for discussion. So often, what is left out of how-to guides is: “now, practice x for thousands of hours”.

Reaction: Ring of Freedom

Non violence sculpture by carl fredrik reutersward malmo swedenOne of the topics which has really captured my attention over the last few years is “non-violent resistance”. I’ve been introduced to the concept largely through Walter Wink’s work on “the powers”, though Wink makes use of René Girard, whom I really like, as well. Additionally, attending a talk by Miroslav Volf gave me a lot of food for thought! Non-violent resistance is a complicated idea with a simple (and, from the viewpoint of many, absurd) moral logic: (a) evil is bad, therefore (b) we should name and resist evil, but (c) we cannot do this with violence, since it is evil and therefore counter-productive to the eradication of evil itself.

This brief moral statement has captivated me, not only because it seems to make a lot of sense, but also because of how infrequently such a morality is even attempted to be lived out on a large scale. Regardless of how things have been throughout human history, there is still in our world a great deal of “conflict resolution” which is really one party using violence or the threat of violence to get their way. Is there a different way, a third way which avoids the problems with both violent conflict and pacifist inaction? More importantly, how could such a third way be effective against guns? Needless to say, these kinds of deliberations deserve book-length treatment, and I’ll probably be unable to think fully about such questions in blog entries, however often I might muse about them.

Anyway, my thoughts about non-violence also typically lead to thoughts about armies, and the US Armed Forces in particular, whose fundamental purpose seems to be to pursue the aims of the US through violence or the threat of violence. I know that the forces are trained to do more than kill, and often engage in humanitarian activities; those, however, are incidental to the actual purpose of the military (otherwise, why guns?). Thoughts like these were triggered again a few days ago, when I was sent this Veteran’s Day video, originally found on the NRA’s website. You might as well watch it, since it’s what this post is about:

I don’t know if anyone else had this reaction, but I found the video deeply ironic. The climax of the speech was a story about a soldier’s heroism which was designed to evoke pride in the soldier’s action and therefore pride in our country by his representation. It did this very well: to think that a Navy corpsman would rush into a firefight in order to rescue a wounded enemy is extremely moving, and I am awed at the courageous act. The irony, for me, was that the action so lauded of this marine by Oliver North was precisely the kind of action I don’t imagine is military protocol: an action of non-violent compassion in the face of a very real danger of violence. We rightly take pride in our association by nationality with a hero like the one in this story, but I wonder whether he was acting fully as a dispenser of his duties? Maybe, on the other hand, the mutual recognition of humanity in the enemy triggered this heroic rescue?

I’m sure I’m very ignorant of actual battle protocol in the army, and maybe there is a command to merely disable the enemy so that they can be rescued, given medical attention, and imprisoned or rehabilitated. Something tells me, however, that US generals would be pretty concerned if all of their soldiers were in the habit of risking their lives for wounded Iraqi insurgents. My point is that the story is so powerful it got told at an NRA annual meeting even when the power in the story comes from the fact that the corpsman didn’t use his weapon!

It got me thinking: what if there were a force of women and men trained in almost all the same ways as Marines, such that they were physically and mentally prepared to run into dangerous situations to rescue others, but who were unwilling to do violence to anyone they encountered? Reason says they’d all get slaughtered, but… it’s also a really interesting thought.

So much of what the NRA video did was to evoke pride and respect at the various skills and disciplines involved in being a soldier: taking care of oneself, cleaning one’s gun, walking all day in 120-degree heat without complaint, sharing the last vestiges of life with a dying comrade, and so on. We are naturally drawn to glorify such skill and sacrifice, and I admit it is impressive. However, when is it appropriate to stop asking what the skill is used for?

Stories draw upon this natural awe at great skill all the time, and so we can root for the team of skillful thieves even though what they are doing is illegal, and if their theft was directed at us we would prosecute them. Likewise, it is easy to glorify the warrior because the warrior is talented, skillful, and disciplined. The process of becoming a warrior teaches valuable personal skills, delivers confidence, etc… But does our adulation of the skillfulness involved in battle cloud over the fact that what we are adulating, at the end of the day, is battle, i.e., people killing each other? Killing isn’t what the average soldier does on any given day, but let’s face it: what country on earth trains their army in every skill except for shooting people?

Essentially, what I’m saying is that the fact that somebody is well-trained at something doesn’t make that thing good! We might have well-trained rapists and murderers walking around, but that doesn’t making them any more honorable or less deserving of incarceration. I hasten to add that I don’t equate soldiers with criminals! What they do is legitimated by every nation in the history of our species, and at the end of the day perhaps necessary to procure a slightly greater amount of peace, or stop evil from taking over the entire earth. I’m not convinced of that, though admittedly I don’t know very much yet. I’m also not convinced that, even if that necessity has held in the past, it has to hold in the future. I believe that however necessary we think war is, we should always be deeply saddened by it and ashamed of it as a human race.

Another curious point from the NRA video is the connection North makes between warfare and faith. I’m not sure what he meant, but it sounded like he said most soldiers are in the armed forces because of faith. Is that faith in freedom, or religious faith? If it’s religious faith (and North only showed examples of Christians), I’m even more concerned: as I look at Jesus, I don’t see a whole lot to commend violence, whether as a first or last resort. Moreover, the connection between praying before battle and praying before football highlights another worry: in either case, do you think God wants one team to lose, one to win?

One parting quote from the Ring of Freedom website:

Think of the fearless men and women who put on a uniform every day to make freedom possible—because there are no freedoms, without those willing to fight for them.

This is one of the stickiest points of this whole business: isn’t freedom worth dying to protect? Isn’t it worth killing to protect? Isn’t self-determination so basic a human right we’re justified in exterminating those who hinder others from experiencing it? I just don’t know; killing someone sure seems like a good way to end their experiment in self-determination! The Marine who rescued the Iraqi soldier, on the other hand, gave him that, and more: the knowledge that an enemy from the other side of the planet cared enough about his humanity to risk his life making sure it didn’t end. Now that is inspiring!

PS: I think it goes without saying that I greatly respect the sacrifices of those who have selflessly given their lives for causes greater than themselves. I respect that the average soldier has nothing to do with the motivations which lead her country into war, and whether they approximate those of a ‘just’ war. And I respect that the cycle of violence thrusts violence upon citizens of the world when they do not deserve it. However, I do believe that cycle needs to be examined, and that sacrifice must be respected with a conscious understanding of the goal of that sacrifice! Lastly, I am acutely aware that, whatever the morality of the wars that secured my freedom, I do make use of a freedom which was gained by someone fighting for it, and I am indeed thankful for that freedom. I simply hope that we can find a better way to procure it! And that won’t happen if we assume what we currently have is good enough.

The Dark Knight and René Girard

Last week, I saw The Dark Knight. It was incredible, easily the best movie I’ve seen in the last year and probably in my Top 10 overall. It had a wonderful balance of action, good writing, amazing acting, thoughtful plot, and provocative questions. The questions it raises (and answers?) are, as you would expect from a good Batman movie, all about justice and violence and how much of the latter is permitted in search of the former.

A few months ago, that would have been all I perceived in the film. Recently, however, I’ve been going through René Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, since I’d wanted to get a taste of his thought through one of his books rather than from a secondary source like Walter Wink. Anyway, I was nearly done with the book when I saw The Dark Knight, and was surprised when I saw the film explode with new meaning for me, unlocked by Girard’s concepts! I thought a brief exposition of the connections could be illuminating (and maybe inspire someone to read Girard, whom I now believe to be one of the most important thinkers of our time).

Attempting a one-paragraph introduction to Girard’s theses is silly, but here we go: his main idea is that there is a hidden principle that ties together all of human society, which stems from the fact that as creatures we are prone to mimetic desire, that is, we are prone to mimicking others’ desires, or desiring what others have. This naturally creates ever-building conflicts (which he calls scandals), and these scandals mount and mount until a moment when there is so much intrasocietal tension that people come to the verge of the “war of all-against-all”, since the only logical conclusion of “mimetic rivalry” is murder. In order to prevent such a catastrophic degradation into pure bestiality and to restore order, Girard thinks these tensions and energies are collectively focused in a spontaneous and unanimous redirection to a swift and violent “war of all-against-one”. This “one” is referred to as the scapegoat, initially demonized then subsequently divinized for his “ability” (through sacrifice) to bring calm to the community. This whole process, Girard says, is ritualized and then mythologized in such a way that the actual violent mechanism (the “single victim mechanism”) is veiled and invisible to the contemporary participants then the later receivers of the mythological tradition. In other words, the citizens who pick up the stones actually believe that the one they are about to murder, even though a moment ago he was one of the crowd, is now worthy of death.

Girard goes on to base some astonishingly profound claims on top of this foundation, which are worth exploring further if you have the time to read his work. He also supports his powerful anthropological claim in a way that I clearly don’t have the space to outline here – it truly is amazing when he examines the myths of the ancient world and compares them to the stories from the Judeo-Christian tradition (which he thinks is the only tradition to see and expose the single victim mechanism for what it is – a second-rate and temporary solution to the main problem of human existence). Of particular interest for Christians, he unlocks a new and compelling way of reading Jesus’ words and the history of early Christianity radically nonviolently, particularly the Crucifixion. (Girard loves treating Jesus’ willing death, not so much a “blood sacrifice” in the sense as all the other ritual sacrifices which mask the single victim mechanism, but as an action that looks enough like it to dupe the “principalities and powers” into triggering the mechanism, only for it to backfire via the Resurrection and Jesus’ powerful exposition of their hidden secret for maintaining power). Finally, Girard thinks that in our modern society, thanks to the insights of Christianity, we tend to be characterized by “concern for victims” rather than a subconscious willingness to sacrifice them.

Obviously, a lot more could be said, but sooner or later we have to get to The Dark Knight. In the movie, Batman is wrestling with some essentially Girardian questions (common to superheroes, it seems). He sees the fundamental problem of society (Gotham) clearly – disorder, violence, and inaction, and attempts to counter these problems with his own brand of nonlethal (rather than lethal or nonviolent) crime-fighting. He soon discovers, unfortunately, that his actions only heighten the tension and spawn nemeses of greater caliber. This corresponds, I’d say, to Girard’s description of the multiplication of scandals and the move to a breaking point.

The breaking point comes in the form of the Joker, a mysterious individual who describes himself primarily as an agent of chaos, which is extremely interesting in a Girardian sense given that “chaos” is exactly what the single victim mechanism evolved to counter – so already we can imagine that perhaps one of the Joker’s roles in the film will be to instigate this societal mechanism. In fact, he does this on a number of occasions! His favorite games all seem to involve forcing supposedly-upright citizens into situations where it looks like sacrificing one (or a few) of their number will bring calm and restore order (the call to murder the Wayne Enterprises employee about to reveal the identity of Batman, the ferry dilemma, his speech to Harvey Dent, etc…). In other words, he is inviting the triggering of the single victim mechanism, even explicitly, as a way for Gotham to regain peace. But tellingly, this “peace” is only temporary – the next day, the Joker will be back with another escalation of tension and another demand. This is exactly how Girard describes the single victim mechanism – a violent and temporary reduction of societal tension.

It’s also interesting to examine the Joker in the light of Girard’s thoughts about Satan as the principle (rather than the “person” – Girard doesn’t want to award Satan with real existence-in-himself) behind mimetic violence (the violence generated by mimetic desire and resulting in the single victim mechanism). Girard sees Satan as maintaining power precisely through the operation of this mechanism (as the Joker does).

Another of the themes in the movie is Batman’s wrestling with the Joker’s argument that they are basically the same. Nemeses, true, but both costume-wearing crazies: one out to promote order and the other to destroy it. It seems that the Joker’s argument is really intended as a temptation for Batman to give in and use the same tools as his enemy (using lethal rather than nonlethal force). Girard’s theory speaks to this situation as well, when he talks about “mimetic rivalry”. Two people who desire the same thing eventually become hard-and-fast rivals – that much is pretty obvious. But he also explains that two rivals, supposedly different in every sense, through their intense rivalry generate a fundamental likeness as they are consumed by their rage against each other and eventually become beings with one main characteristic: the desire to defeat the other. And so the Joker invites Batman to succumb to this cycle, to descend into the facelessness of mimetic rivalry where the combatants have more in common with each other (via their combat) than not.

In all of this, Batman has to make decisions about whether to play the game offered by the Joker (and indeed, it seems the only option), or whether to reject the Joker’s starting assumptions. These questions are put not just to him, but to all the people of Gotham, especially in the ferry trial. The options: order at the cost of other people’s lives, or pure chaos (everybody dies). It seems sadly obvious to us, the viewers, that the former option is better than the latter. But Batman (and the people on the boats) decide to believe in a third option – the path of nonviolence and the willingness to be sacrificed. Of course, that path doesn’t always lead to a happy ending – though it did in the movie because of Batman’s skill in trapping the Joker.

But how does that help us? What if we were in the same situation, except without a Batman to perform our miracles? This is where faith in God is put to the test (or rather, where faith in God puts him to the test), and we find out what Jesus (and so many other innocent victims) felt like before being torn apart by the mob… But perhaps I should leave that an open question!

Well, I hope I’ve made it clear that there are some cool resonances between The Dark Knight and Girard’s theories. I haven’t done any research or exploration to see if the writers / director of the movie have read Girard or intentionally used any of his ideas in making the movie. Either way, The Dark Knight stands as a powerful representation of these important themes, and asks us to confront within ourselves questions about violence, scapegoating, and sacrifice.

The iPhone Era: Technological Adaptation and the Future of Human Evolution

When the original iPhone was released a year ago, I wanted one. The promise of being constantly connected to all the various sockets of the Internet into which I have plugged myself (news, e-mail, chat, social networks, information gathering, etc…) was seductive. Being able to work while not standing by a computer, or to keep tabs, in an up-to-the-second fashion, on my virtual communication stream – how exciting!

I didn’t get an iPhone then because of my imminent move to Kenya (where it would have been a bad idea to flash one of those around, even if it functioned), but with the recent emergence of the iPhone 3G, I decided to take the plunge, and see if this device was as life-changing as it was cracked up to be. Turns out, it is! But I’m beginning to wonder at what cost.

It’s no secret that technology changes us. A few years ago I reflected on the iPod’s effects on culture, and earlier this month, Melissa raised similar questions, with respect to Google. I had an interesting experience today, however, which proved that these changes can insinuate themselves into deep parts of our cognition.

I was walking down the street with some friends, looking for Los Hermanos, a great burrito place. I was in the general vicinity of it, I thought, but wasn’t quite sure of the cross street, and I was confused that I hadn’t seen the restaurant thus far on my walk. Well, I said to myself – that’s what I have an iPhone for! So I fired it up, Googled the restaurant, and had a street address in under a minute. 2026 Chestnut. “OK, what’s the address of this store here? 2016… OK, that means that Los Hermanos should be…” At which point, I looked up from my phone and noticed the large, brightly-colored sign hanging above the business not more than 15 feet from where I was standing. Yep, it was Los Hermanos.

It was very interesting to me that my first instinct, upon finding myself in a place where I expected to see one thing and saw another, thereby needing more locational information, was to use the Internet rather than my eyes. My eyes, having evolved to perform precisely the task I needed done (namely the gaining of local spatial knowledge) were passed over in favor of technology. Which meant, of course, that the more dangerous trade – my memory for Google – was implicit.

But why not trust to the skills that were bestowed upon us via our natural adaptations? Have we truly passed into an age where our environments are changing far more rapidly than our bodies can adapt? It certainly seems like it. But perhaps the more interesting question is, what will that do to our bodies? When we learned how to cook food our jaws decreased in size. When we learned how to wear clothes, we lost our hair (depending on your view of this adaptation). When we learned how to live in cities, we lost our natural keen sensitivities to natural phenomena. When we learned how to use dead plant matter to propel ourselves in metal canisters across the earth, many of us lost the proper functioning of our legs and other muscles. When we taught ourselves that interesting content can be delivered in the time span of a short video clip or a 3-minute radio single, we infected ourselves with A.D.D. while simultaneously dulling our senses to anything not flashing or brightly-colored.

… And I could go on.

So, what will happen when we learn how to never need to remember anything again? What will that do to our brains? What will it do to our ability to survive without our newfangled devices? (Imagine trying to survive these days without clothes, fire or tools!) What species will we become, with essential parts of our existence scattered around the world in metal boxes on fragile hard drives? No longer homo sapiens, the thinking human, but homo technologicus, the equipped human. And so we have to ask ourselves, do we want to evolve in this way? The benefits of ubiquitous and distributed memory are immense, but what are the costs? What will happen to our ability to spend time in Nature qua natural beings, qua creatures?

Maybe that’s what we should be thinking about when buying our new iPhones (and yes, mine is very shiny) – but either way, it’s certainly not what is being advertised.