Saturday, 12 April 2008

The origins of mythology...possibly

This image is one you will probably recognise if you've followed the news recently. She is Lali and was born in a village on the edge of Delhi with an exceedingly rare condition called Craniofacial Duplication meaning that she has been born with two sets of eyes, noses, mouths and so on. In her native town she has been feted as a miracle. Her father admitted to being scared but it didn't take long for the paternal instincts to take over which is quite commendable of him. One could imagine that in less enlightened times she would either be locked into an institution. The reactions of the general public are, according to the BBC article on the subject, less enlightened:

"Faced with something they are unable to comprehend, the villagers believe she is the reincarnation of a Hindu goddess. There's even talk of a temple being built in her honour.

Lali doesn't remind me of any Hindu goddess but then I don't know many of them. She does, however, remind me of the Roman God Janus. Wikipedia reliably informs me that Janus was (or is I suppose if you believe in him, and if you don't I guess that makes you an atheist like me) the God for gates, doorways, beginnings and endings. What he is or was is less interesting than the origins of the mythology. Would it be an outlandish theory to argue that the legend of Janus was inspired by an early example of Craniofacial Duplication? Without our understanding of biology or physiology one can't begin to imagine what the reaction of early people would be to a child born with two faces. Would they sacrifice it to their God or celebrate it as, well, a miracle and build temples in its honour? Of course this isn't something I could begin to prove but when you start thinking along these lines then other myths begin to appear to potentially have wholly natural origins.

This is Lakshmi Tatma and she was a pair of ischiopagus conjoined twins born in yet another village in India back in 2005. Her twins head atrophied in the womb due to underdevelopment and so it looked like she was one girl with four arms and four legs. She recently underwent 27 hour surgery to remove the extraneous limbs and will probably be back in hospital many more times in her life. According to yet another BBC article the reaction of the people of her village was to announce her birth as being the reincarnation of yet another Hindu God:

"The child has been hailed by some in her village in Bihar as the reincarnation of the multi-limbed Hindu goddess of wealth, Lakshmi."

Lakshmi isn't the only Hindu God whose appearance that might have its origins in this particular form of conjoined twins. This is of course Vishnu, the God of preservation. I'm sure I've got you thinking now because it is possible. Let me give you another idea, this time from something that has its origins in the world of voodoo. Rabies is a viral zoonotic neuralinvasive disease which causes inflammation of the brain in mammals. It is nearly always lethal (in fact there are only six known cases where people have survived). Let me quote from wikipedia on the symptoms it involves:

"The period between infection and the first flu-like symptoms is normally two to twelve weeks, but can be as long as two years. Soon after, the symptoms expand to slight or partial paralysis, cerebral dysfunction, anxiety, insomnia, confusion, agitation, abnormal behavior, paranoia, terror, hallucinations, progressing to delirium.[citation needed] The production of large quantities of saliva and tears coupled with an inability to speak or swallow are typical during the later stages of the disease; this can result in "hydrophobia", where the victim has difficulty swallowing because the throat and jaw become slowly paralyzed, shows panic when presented with liquids to drink, and cannot quench his or her thirst. The disease itself was also once commonly known as hydrophobia, from this characteristic symptom. The patient "foams at the mouth" because they cannot swallow their own saliva for days and it gathers in the mouth until it overflows."

Just as interesting as the symptoms are the methods of transmission:

"The virus is usually present in the nerves and saliva of a symptomatic rabid animal. The route of infection is usually, but not necessarily, by a bite. In many cases the infected animal is exceptionally aggressive, may attack without provocation, and exhibits otherwise uncharacteristic behaviour."

Zombies, zombies, zombies...that's what I could have just been describing. Mythology has its origins wherever there are unexplained phenomena and from our desire to have an answer so that we think we know the truth about the world around us we latch on to those who purport to have the answers. Have you noticed that miracles don't happen so much these days...go figure.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Can you keep a secret?

I'm tired and grouchy so what better vehicle for what little energy I have remaining than to take a moment aside to wax whingeful about a pet peeve of mine: PostSecret. For the origins of my distaste it is probably best to illustrate with an example. "When I see an airplane I watch it in case it crashes. So I can be a witness (on tv)". What utter drivel, I'm sorry but this really gets on my tits, this is no secret and it is certainly not worthy of dissemination, it is an awful transparent attempt at sounding deep and profound. Arse gravy of the highest order. I was impressed by Post Secret when it first gained notoriety and was shocked by the frank and disturbing admissions that you found scrawled anonymously on the postcards they featured but as with so many internet phenomena they have become the victims of their own success and being 'published' on their website, or in one of their many books has become something to be desired...even if you don't happen to actually have a secret.

This post for instance: "I like hopeful street art". Yup, I can see why you're keeping that one to yourself. Admitting that in certain parts of this town would be like admitting you were David Mellor or even worse, John Selwyn Gummer (I'm sorry if you don't know who these people are...hell I'm sorry I do). Anywho...yes...the point is that I really couldn't give one toss what mood of street art you like, your profundity has the depth of Peter Andre and commands about the same amount of my interest.

So to the producers of the unadulterated piffle, can you keep a secret? Please?

Monday, 31 March 2008

Unmoved by the unmoved mover

It's funny how in philosophy everything seems to begin with Aristotle. Even the most basic philosophical distinction, that between physics and metaphysics or essentially between science and philosophy dates back to his book 'the Physics' -- everything that didn't make it into that book forms the basis of what we call metaphysics.

When it came to the origins of the universe Aristotle wasn't so advanced as to predict the big bang theory however he posited the idea of a first cause, a cause that was itself not the effect of a prior cause but a first cause. Aristotle argued that there is movement in the universe and this movement had an origin, this is the unmoved mover

“The rule of many is not good; one ruler let there be."

Thomas Aquinas took this argument further with his Quinquae viae or 'Five Ways' in his Summa Theologiae as he used this Aristotelian concept as an argument for the existence of God. The argument takes this format:

  1. There is movement in the universe
  2. Everything that moves is moved by a mover
  3. It is impossible for there to be infinite regress
  4. Therefore there must be a first mover, an unmoved mover from which all other movement is generated
  5. We call this mover God
This is, of course, clearly bollocks. First of all there are very big and unprovable assumptions like 'everything that moves is moved by a mover' and 'it is impossible for there to be infinite regress'...why? But I'm feeling very generous so lets move beyond that to 'we call this mover God'. One of the most basic precepts of semiotics is that the naming of concepts is arbitrary so by calling anything 'God' what magic did Aquinas wish to impart? Why not call lamppost or how about Tarquin Fin-tim-lin-bin-whin-bim-lim-bus-stop-F'tang-F'tang-Olé-Biscuitbarrel?

My generosity knows no bounds and lets even look past the arbitrary name relationship and call it, as Aquinas wished, God but what do we 'know' (and I emphasise know here in the platonic: justified true belief sense) about this God...well sod all actually, that he is a first movement and that's it. Even if you ignored the logical problems all this argument supports is a Thomas Paine type Deism where God features merely as a first cause and not as an all powerful hands on deity. But still one step further, lets assume that the God is an all powerful hands on God...why would that make him good? I think the good/bad dichotomy is drivel and a hangover of our binary underdeveloped brains, but lets suppose there is a God, and for all I know there might be as I can't disprove one in the way that I cannot disprove Russell's teapot or the flying spaghetti monster, but even if there is then what possible grounds could I have for believing him peaceful rather than malign because if it's the bible then Yahweh is not a God I wish to know.

Sunday, 2 March 2008


George Orwell was an intelligent man and seemed to have quite a good grasp of semiotics and the importance of language and its capacity to structure and regulate thought. In 1984 he created the concept of 'newspeak' which was a creation of the state with the aim of regulating how people think and exorcising thought which would be harmful to its interests:

"The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought, that is a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as it is dependent on words"

The word free, as in political freedom, became undesirable in Oceania and its use was restriced to a negative use, for instance the dog was free from lice. I could go on and list Newspeak words but Wikipedia does it better than I could so I suggest you check out the relevant article. What interests me more than the fictional world is how this principle is used in the here and now.

A good example of Newspeak is the political correctness campaign or the campaign for plain English and these are two campaigns I generally support. The former started off a campaign to make our use of language more gender neutral. For many, gone are the days of chairmen and manholecovers we now have chairperson and peopleholecovers. I'm generally supportive not because I think any one instance will offend either sex but because we have a language that belies a history of male dominance and reaffirms those positions by their constant use. The campaign for plain English works in a similar way by making the complicated langauge used in law for instance, or politics, accessible to the layman. In the law this has meant the irradication of much of the Latin used, terms like plaintiff and defendant are now replaced by claimant and respondent. They seem like small gestures but they are steps towards the breaking down of class and gender divisions.

More cynical attempts to control public perception with Newspeak are the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Afghanistan those who fought against the invading coalition forces were not the resistance but they were enemy combatants, a position that denied them the basic Geneva Convention rights. In Iraq the term used was 'insurgents' but even this seems to be politically sensitive as it admits there is a problem and now the official term is concerned local nationals. Politics is rife with this sort of language, ways of circumventing truth by the careful choice of words and this is a major reason people are disillusioned by the process.

I'd always rather be won over by cunning argument than subverted by the 'right' words.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

I've got two legs

At work I operate with two monitors. I always wondered what sort of crazy people would do that and consigned it to pit of things done by graphic designers and software editors. I actually need to access enough documents simultaneously these days that I could probably do with another.

The number two is quite interesting because it's all around us, not just my visual display units but my eyes, ears, nostrils, nipples, legs, arms and other assorted extremities...ahem. There are two magnetic poles, two sexes, two terrestrial BBC channels, two premier league football teams in Manchester...okay the last two aren't so interesting. Early man would have associated with the number two as that was the number of large celestial light producing bodies in the sky visible with the naked eye, the Sun and the Moon. In fact much of our understanding of the world comes from contrasting things with their polar opposite; good from bad, dark from light, sweet from sour and so on. This is a key tenet of structural semiotics if anyone's interested.

So, two is quite interesting but that makes three even more so because in many early cultures it simply did not exist, counting schemes went one, two, lots. In early Mesopotamia they used the word 'es' for three but it didn't mean three it just meant plural, just as we would add an 's' on the end of words for pluralisation, it worked in the same way. Even better were the civilisations where numbers greater than two were counted in combinations of one and two. In Australia, for instance, the Aranda used 'ninta' for one and 'tara' for two, three became 'tara mi ninta' and four was 'tara ma tara', any more than four and they were back to 'lots'. There are similar examples from Ancient Egypt and China but I fear I'd only be getting repetitive.

I'm by no means ignorant of technology but computers generally baffle me. They have one great advantage over us in that they do not have to conceptualise numbers which we do if they are to 'mean' something to us. We're not so good at dealing with the abstract, and even then numbers greater than five or six become difficult to conceive. The fact that we see the world still with such binary vision leads me to the conclusion that we've not evolved as far as we give ourselves credit and strangely I find it comforting.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Barack Obama is a homosexual martian

I also understand that he's a gypsy paedophile, a former member of the KGB and the love child of Fidel Castro and Michael Moore. He actually flew the first plane into the trade centre and is single-handedly responsible for most unsolved murders across America.

I'd like to take this opportunity to congratulate Hilary Clinton on taking campaign tips from Rupert Murdoch, it's about time sister.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

The Age of Enlightenment -- Turning Back the Clock

I've always been rather intrigued by the Enlightenment; I idolise people like David Hume and Sir Isaac Newton. Aristotle was a clever chap but his understanding was of his time. Theology grew as a means of adapting Aristotle to fit with Christian teaching, a job completed almost entirely by Thomas Aquinas and from that point on to challenge Aristotle was to challenge the church and those that did faced sever consequences -- one doesn't have to look much further that Galileo Galilee for evidence. Isaac Newton changed all of this, his empirical approach to understanding meant that knowledge could only be attained by experiment and with this science advanced and so came about the industrial revolution and it seems that we haven't looked back since...but I'm not so sure.

One of the recently unearthed and translated novels from the great author Alexandre Dumas is called 'One Thousand and One Ghosts'. Written at the height of the 1848 revolution it is a dark tale in which a group of diverse companions sit at dinner and tell what are ostensibly ghost stories. The guillotine is a good symbol of the Enlightenment, the scientifically designed, horrifically efficient machine for death. It represented all our new understanding of anatomy -- understanding that was hard to come by before the enlightenment as dissection was prohibited by church doctrine and as such inscribed into law. Dumas' ghost stories represent an adverse reaction to the Enlightenment, a return to spirituality and mysticism as an antidote to the science that brought about the reign of terror.

Richard Dawkins seems to be the champion of the new movement back to the enlightenment. I respect many of his beliefs; I am an atheist, I think astrology is a pile of nonsense, that psychics pray of the desperate hopes of the bereaved and so on and so forth but what he represents is something echoed around many universities -- that disciplines can only survive if they meet these 'scientific criteria'. This seems to signal the death-knell for many social sciences that cannot conform, my cherished subject of semiotics being one thereof.

Science does not have all the answers and Richard Dawkins would never claim that it does; it is a vehicle for attaining 'knowledge' and it presents a shifting understanding that adapts with new evidence and understanding but it never presents our full picture of culture or the human experience. As Dawkins states, we do have an amazing ability to find patterns in the random nature of universe, it's almost all we can do to separate our existence from that of the animals we eat or the insects we tread on it's the basis upon which we search for and 'find' meaning in life -- the question remains would you want a life without meaning. Perhaps ignorance can be bliss.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

The functions of insurance or socialism for beginners

I was recently reading a rather dull document, I wont reveal which one but it suffices to say that it was produced by the CII, the Chartered Insurance Institute. There is one passage in particular that I shall copy verbatim:

"the basic concept of insurance is that the losses of the few are met by the contributions of the many. The premiums paid by many insureds form a common pool of funds, from which valid claims are paid. For each premium paid, the insurer accepts the risk of a considerably larger claim being made against his funders, should misfortune strike the Insured."

It makes a lot of sense -- insurance is essentially a risk-transfer mechanism and the losses of the few are met by the contributions of the many. Now if I make a valid claim against my insurance company my fellow assureds are not going to accuse me of stealing their premium money but this is exactly what happens with welfare.

The concept of welfare works in the same way as insurance, let me take the NHS as an example. As a whole British society make a small contribution to the running of a health system so that the when people are sick, which will only be a small proportion of society at any one time, they can get treatment without any additional outlay. The very same risk-transfer systems are in place but for some reason this becomes much more contentious.

Neither system is perfect and it comes down to the issue of incentive; an insurance company has to make a profit in order to justify its existence and this striving for profit means that not all valid claims will be met and not all risks will be taken hence why in America sick people cannot get health insurance. The NHS's problem is the polar opposite in that it is so large that it becomes almost too expensive to work out what expenses are justified, in other words (following the analogy) many 'invalid claims' get paid.

I'm not going to try and convince you that there are no problems with a nationalised health service but if you view the expenditure of tax dollars as being theft then don't take out insurance either as they operate under the same principles. Taxes or premiums are essentially the same it is incentive which makes the two operate differently and for me the choice between the two systems isn't a hard one to make.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Vote for Paolo

I was sorry when Edwards bowed out of the race for the Democratic nomination. Even though I knew he wouldn't win you still hold out to hope and now I could not choose between Clinton and Obama, in fact to be blunt I would vote for neither were they standing for election here in Britain but then my politics are slightly to left of mainstream America. Choosing a political party is always something of a compromise; you're never going to find a party that exactly matches your beliefs unless you start one yourself which got me thinking -- what would a Paolo Party do in America? Here is a manifesto of ten policies, five domestic and five international by which you can imagine. They are in no particular order:


1. Nationalised healthcare. You have a healthcare system in which being ill makes it harder to get about putting the cart before the horse. I cannot imagine the resentment that must lie in poor neighbourhoods where people cannot afford medical insurance but see billions of dollars spent fighting wars overseas. I would also contemplate nationalising the pharmaceuticals too as a connected issue.

2. Political Funding. The funding of political parties should be done by the state. No longer should elections be fought on the basis of which party has the biggest fighting fund, nor should there be question marks over political decisions in which there are clear vested interests. Lobbying should also be replaced by active consultation -- it is only right that government decisions are informed, but not bought.

3. Liberalize - I've never quite understood the matching of economic liberalism and social conservatism in America, but yes, social liberty should be championed. Legalise gay marriage, marijuana (taxed of course), prostitution in brothels (properly regulated), stem cell research. I'm sure there is more to add in this section but they all relate to a fourth issue:

4. Decouple church and state: you're supposed to be a democracy not a theocracy and religious practice should never be made to seem a civic duty. This also ties into an international aim of giving aid to charities who promote birth control as a means of halting the progress of aids in Africa. Personally I'd rather save lives than 'souls'. This also ties into an important policy:

5. Separation of power: Politically appointed judges are an appalling breach of the principle of separation of the executive and judicial branches of power. Politically appointed or elected judges will always have the question hanging over their heads as to whether the decision they make in any given case is on political grounds. Judges should apply the law that is their only function and their appointment should be on the grounds of their legal competence by an independent panel.


6. Torture - whether you do it yourselves or use extraordinary rendition to get someone else to do it for you it's never right and can be justified on no grounds, that is an absolute. This means closing down Guantanamo by the way.

7. No more chequebook diplomacy - Either aid is needed or it isn't, threatening to withdraw aid to swing a decision at the UN is wrong on so many grounds, not to mention the undermining of the entire international law system.

8. Get the troops home - Iraq needs to stand on it's own two feet, whilst the troops are there America will always seem a divisive force.

9. Come into the fold - on the build up to the first world war Britain held itself in what she called 'splendid isolation'. America's relationship with the rest of the world of recent years in respect of the middle east, climate change, African debt and so on, has appeared unilateral and isolationist. Lead through consensus not arrogance or self-interest.

10. Be a force for good - you don't need to look much further back than Roosevelt for inspiration on this one.

Ten ideas off the top of my head -- would I get elected? No, I doubt I'd get a single vote but that's what Paolo's America would look like.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Fragile minds, fragile music

Sometimes when Tchaikovsky was conducting he would cradle a hand onto his head from the fear that it might drop off -- I'm rather fascinated by fragile and vulnerable musicians and pieces of music that, without being weak, feel like they exist on the edge of evaporation. This is a homage to three fragile musicians:

Tim Hardin

Peter Green

And finally Nick Drake

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Things can only get worse!

I'm quite envious when I watch the election process under way in America. It's not that I would want the saturation coverage that it must be getting because that is really a nightmare but there is an enthusiasm and a real feeling of change that I haven't known in England since 1997. After seven years of George W Bush, the hangover that just wouldn't go away, it doesn't really seem to matter (to an extent) who wins the election as things can only be an improvement. By 1997 we'd had 18 years of Conservative rule under the truly evil Maggie Thatcher and then the rather absurd grey little man John Major and people had had enough of political scandal and the mistreatment and underinvestment in public services; the desire for change was palpable and we had an anthem:

Looking back now it looks so cheesy but at the time it expressed what everyone felt, the Labour Party offered so much hope and after what had passed things could really only get better; this is where America is today. A general election wont happen in England until next year at the earliest and there are only two realistic results; 1) by some miracle Gordon Brown reverses his slump in the polls, develops a personality and wins. Would I celebrate? Even as a lifelong Labour supported, no I don't think I would. The last 11 years of Labour government have probably left me the most disillusioned with politics as I've ever been and that's not just about Iraq, I feel betrayed on many domestic fronts too. Option 2 is just as bad, the Tories get back in power under the cappuccino leadership of David Cameron (all froth and no coffee). He might try and put a smiley face on the Conservative Party but they are the same people as before, nothing has changed and if we see them in power expect tax cuts benefiting the rich and cuts in vital public services to pay for it as they go on to prove that they really are the party of vested interests.

America will have change, it's just a matter of seeing what form that takes but it makes for exciting times. In England change or none our prospects are bleak and getting worse and my only prediction for the next election is a low turnout.

This pessimism has been brought to you courtesy of insomnia.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Hello, My name's Paolo and I... or On Being

I like the verb 'to be', to take an ontological turn. I am, you are, we are and so on and so forth. In Italian the verb is 'essere' and as is quite usually the case the Italian gives you and indication of etymology; the word 'essence' stems from the Ancient Greek 'esse' which brings us rather neatly back to the verb relating to our being. Ontology itself stems from 'ontos' which is the present participle of 'einai' which also originates from 'esse': to be. The verb is the one with which we define ourselves; it is the beginning of how we encapsulate ourselves to the world, it is a verb with so much promise but what comes next?

Let me place you in a hypothetical yet common place scenario, you are meeting someone for the first time and know nothing about them, they are non-descript so all you will learn from them and they of you will be discerned from you following conversation; how do you start. My guess is that it will be along the lines of 'Hello, my name's Bob and I'm a taxidermist'. Well perhaps not that exact phrase, you might even tailor it to fit your own circumstances by using your own name and job but that's the point I'm getting at: why do we define ourselves by what we do? So little of who I am is wrapped up in my job but my employment is one of the first things I will tell someone on an initial meeting.

Marx argued that factors of our economic condition acted to alienate us from our real needs associated with our humanity. Work acts to objectify us; if we work for our own ends or for sustenance we can get affirmation from our actions but working as a cog in a machine we are reduced to a utilitarian calculation, a resource to fill a task. Our relationship with our work runs along the same lines, we work as little or as much as is required that we purchase all the things we think we cannot live without which is the other side of alienation. Capitalism requires growth, growth requires consumption and consumption requires the idea of necessity -- every person selling a product wants you to think that you cannot live without it. But what do we really need to survive? Do you know? I'd say you probably don't because we have been alienated from our real needs to the extent that we do not know what we want from what we need.

I am not advocating economic reform, I'm more pragmatic, I want linguistic change starting with how we use the verb to be. Just try it for a week: Hello, my name's Paolo and I like the verb 'to be', or how about 'Hello, my name is Bob and I like cheese, but not as much as people think I like it, conversational asides are a hazardous thing to toss around without care', or perhaps you have a more relevant idea.

Friday, 4 January 2008

USA - Vote 2008 (Global Edition)

This years elections in America are quite important, not just in terms of the US domestic political agenda but because of the effect the winner will have on the world stage; peace in the Middle East, poverty and aids in Africa, global climate. As the only superpower on the block the world has some serious vested interests in the outcome. In the spirit of democracy I might go as far as suggest that we all get to vote although there might be some complaints about that one so the best we can do is to attempt to influence from afar.

Now I'm going to assume that you're a democrat (Republicans can stop reading and find something else, perhaps a page on guns, you people like that kind of thing) and that you're about to, well over the next few months, select your new leader. You have a great opportunity ahead of you, Hilary Clinton, possibly the first female president in your countries history and with a political background that means there is a chance she will be nothing like Maggie Thatcher (although she has already tried to claim that mantle). The great thing about Hilary is that you vote for her and you get Bill too, he seems to be virtually running her campaign, the idea that will stop as soon as she's in the Whitehouse is a myth. Barak Obama, what a breath of fresh air and of course a chance to be the first African American in the Whitehouse -- but why is it that all I can think about is how he's managed to make so much money in such little time including taking lots of money from the medical insurance people?

I'm afraid in an election where there is so much possibility for an amazing first in American politics my backing (but alas not my vote) has to go to John Edwards. White, middle-classed and middle-aged but fortunately not middle-minded, he looks like everything I should hate about an American politician. Slick, shiny white teeth; you never see him anywhere without his wife or family in-tow you may as well stamp 'All American' to his forehead and lather him up for the patriots to drool over but he has a political zeal missing in either other candidate. His position on campaign donations show that he is not in the hands of the big corporations as do amazing statements like:

"I absolutely believe to my soul that this corporate greed and corporate power has an ironclad hold on our democracy"

It is early days upon which to make a pronouncement but at this stage a vote for Clinton and perhaps for Obama, even though that if either are elected it will be a major first, seems to be a vote for the status quo. A vote for Edwards, a man like all the others who have held the office of president, looks like a vote for change.

I may be wrong, I often am, and you really can ignore me with impunity. I also don't think that Edwards has a chance in hell of winning the nomination but if he forms part of any new democratic government then I shall have renewed faith in American democracy.