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Sayounara 2

This is not a "real" post, so it's not included in the archives. Just to tell you guys that I've moved to for good. Please stop visiting this old page & wondering why I've stopped updating it. This old page & the archives & everything are preserved in their original state for posterity, & my reference. So, please change your bookmarks/favourites, onegaishimasu. Thank you all.

Update: I have since moved again to The posts here, as well as those on the Tripod blog, will be moved over there in time.


31 August 2003 4:39 PM SGT (link)

I thought that Tripod's blogging service was only available to paying customers, but today I tried setting up one just for kicks, & it worked! From readers' point of view, the improvement over this manual one is that you can post comments. This is something many people have asked for, because the tag-board is too restrictive & they are perhaps, ahem, shy about emailing me. From my point of view the improvements are many more, like automatic archiving and creation of permalinks. I lose some things like full flexibility over site design, but I don't really need too much of that anyway.

Hence, I'm planning to give a try for, say, a week. If it's OK, like stable & with no glaring deficiencies, then this will be the last post on l.z.y./Data version 1, the manually-done one. (Unfortunately I don't think I can integrate the old posts into the new blog's archives, even if I had the time to spare.) Please take a look at the new site & give your comments. Thanks!


31 August 2003 12:45 PM SGT (link)

Sometimes reading the ST is an extremely frustrating experience. Articles in the Home section almost all revolve around petty crime or the 5Cs, & sometimes are explicitly there to echo official policy, like today's Who needs a stylo condo, I'm happy with my HDB flat. Then there are those who have non-sequiturs that makes one scratch your head:

...To do that, ardent star-gazing fans started lining up from 6pm to attend the Mars Star Party [at the Science Centre].

Then when the doors opened at 8pm, the shoving and pushing began as some of them tried to cut the queue.

...An Jia Sheng, 10, gushed: 'Wow, it's incredible [Mars]. It's like a diamond!'

Adding some karate moves for emphasis, he yelled: 'It's like Star Trek!'

- ST 31 Aug, Staying up for glimpse of Mars

Yes, I know, he's just 10. But I'd like him to tell me which episode or movie of Star Trek he watched that told him Star Trek is even remotely about astronomy. Seems you could make a better case for it being about, say, biology even.

...Till death do us part? Not if some Singaporeans can help it. An increasing number are reserving niches of choice for their funeral urns, said columbarium managers. Most are doing 'block bookings' so that entire families can stay close even in death.

At Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, also known as Bright Hill Temple, advance bookings have increased compared to last year, said columbarium supervisor Low Xiao Hua.

He said the monastery gets four to five such bookings each month now, compared with one or two a month last year. 'Singaporeans are now less superstitious... and they like the idea that the family can always be together,' he said in Mandarin.

- ST 31 Aug, Till death do us part? Not for some...

Excuse me? Less superstitious? If it's less superstitious to believe that keeping one's family members' funeral urns side by side, as opposed to the immense distance of a block or two in the same columbarium, then I have no idea what the original level of superstition would be. I wonder if the reporter who heard this from the supervisor is naturally uncritical or his clarification was edited away for brevity.

Plus, folk wisdom seems to have it that the proximity of two person's urns determines the proximity of their netherworldly manifestations. I wonder if that has further implications for netherworld economics.

Netherworld economics

30 August 2003 10:15 PM SGT (link)

A few months back, in the course of commenting on a book about the study of Mars's geology, as well as my fascination with incomplete maps of Uranian satellites, I mentioned that the new science of studying the formation of planetary- & moon-scale features may require a new name, because "geo-" in "geology" means "of the earth". The name the author used in that book was "astrogeology", but I don't think it's good, because it doesn't seem to have much to do with observations of the sky. Martian geology is now conducted with a handful of NASA orbiting satellites, 1997's Pathfinder & come 2004, a bevy of robotic probes from NASA, Europe & Japan. The robots are going where no human can (for now), & in fact, the first human mission to Mars will probably have a geologist, seeing that the planet's so rich in geologic features. Xenogeology ("the study of foreign earths")? Exogeology ("the study of outside-earths", analogous to exobiology, the search for extraterrestrial life & its possibilities?)

Never mind, that wasn't really the object of this post. The new science of xenogeology (my personal favourite) that's growing & developing even as we speak is symbolic of a science that grows beyond the boundaries with advances in knowledge & understanding. I hope netherworld economics can enjoy a similar destiny - haha that's much too ambitious, I think!

Let me explain how I came to think of it. One of my old jokes (I think I heard it from an ex-colleague in NS) is that the heaps of paper money people burn every Seventh Month to their ancestors in the netherworld (call it the first-ever devised remittance system) will surely cause massive inflation in the netherworld. Usually I leave it at that. But now, coupled with it being the Seventh Month now, bringing this joke to my mind again, & how Hell is the Absence of God really messes around with your mind about concepts like heaven, hell & piety, I've wondered whether this subject could be systematically & rigorously studied.

Now, this might sound like a lame attempt at parody, or an elaborate joke. Perhaps it is, but that doesn't mean it should be ruled out of hand. After all, many ideas & theories in science & science fiction begin with that simple two-word question: "what if...?" Hear me out. Oh, & I will refer to the inhabitants of the netherworld as netherworlders - it's mildly euphemistic, but I think it's a less distracting & grim term.

  1. What if the remittance system did work, that the money is directed to your deceased ancestors & relatives in the netherworld? Not only money, but occasionally paper houses, cars, gifts etc. - would such property similarly be directed to the person it's meant for? Has the netherworld government set up some kind of bureaucracy to match gifts with people, so that there aren't any mix-ups? These officials must have some kind of method to "see" who's burning the gifts, & pay close attention to who they mean to give it to - either they have the ability to traverse between the mortal realm & the netherworld, or they have some counterpart agency over here with the responsibility of monitoring these proceedings.

    So we see that without any kind of central bureaucracy to handle the remittance system, & perhaps some kind of consumer rights protection in their justice system to address grievances should they arise, the netherworld would be in utter economic chaos & internecine conflict - those gifts are for me! no for me! etc. We have our first deduction already: The netherworld government plays a pretty strong role in its economy. Whether it's collectivist or Keynesian or anything, we can't tell with this limited information, but I consider the first deduction quite an achievement, considering we're starting with literally next to no first-hand information.

    I thought of pursuing a corollary to the idea of gift remittance by showing that the netherworld must necessarily have unlimited expanse because the gifts accumulate every year, & they & the netherworld inhabitants whom they're meant for don't exactly go anywhere. They can't "burn" anything for anyone, for instance. But I think that would be more in the realm of metaphysics - after all, one could postulate instead that these gifts, & the people who receive them, don't physically exist in any sense, so asking how much space they need is the categorically wrong question, like asking "what colour is 5?" (To that I will respond, then why do we expect that the netherworlders can make use of these gifts, since after all you can't make use of a house unless you live in it, or a car unless you drive it, but never mind.)

    There's also the knotty question of exactly why & how matter &/or information is transferred from our mortal realm to the netherworld when someone over here burns something for someone who's dead. So I'll abandon that line of thought for now - I'm trying to keep to the economics.

  2. The remittance system is not the only thing we can ask about the economics of our "model" of the netherworld (constructed from indirect empirical observation). We can ask whether scarcity exists in the netherworld. We presume there are no resources native to the netherworld, short of the people who end up there, of course. The information about this is sparse, since necessarily we have no accounts from anyone who has been there & literally lived to report his/her findings (perhaps the holy texts or scriptures have something on this). A further possibility: the netherworlders make use of resources remitted from our world to offer goods & services. Perhaps a simple bartering system might have kickstarted the whole thing, when Mr. A saw that his relatives had been generous enough to burn him two houses, & decided to exchange one of them with Mr. B's spiffy new Porsche (or whatever the paper equivalent is).

    This would obviously be quite a strange situation in that the basic resources are pre-made goods. It's hard to imagine how the netherworlders would, say, make renovations on their houses, or replace worn-out tyres, if all they had were complete houses & cars. (I gather no one yet has been perceptive enough to make paper carpentry & mechanical tools, or spare parts, & burn them for the netherworlders.) That's one of the areas where netherworld microeconomics will be decidedly different from the mortal version - perhaps simpler, because there are a limited set of goods on hand, & limited ways in which they can be exchanged.

    The situation with services is more murky. Besides the first deduction of the remittance system bureaucracy, we don't have much to go along with. What kind of services are offered must depend on whether the netherworlders in fact need to do anything to... well, carry on existing (I almost said stay alive). Since it's assumed they don't have bodily needs like we mortals do, perhaps they could just sit around all day long. But with a human past, I presume even the biggest sloth would soon get tired of such a dull "life". Perhaps they have what we term as "higher-order" services, like tourism & entertainment. Or even... financial services! But it would take an economist's mind to suggest what types - I have no knowledge of these things.

  3. We finally get to the question that started this all: monetary & asset hyperinflation. It doesn't take a genius, or a B.A. majoring in Econs, to see that if every year, heaps of paper money & scores of paper assets are remitted to the netherworld, not only would they have a problem with space & distribution, they would soon find that the value of the currency & goods depreciating. The netherworld would potentially have never-ending crises of hyperinflation, & the government probably has to chop off 5 or 6 zeroes every Seventh Month. Are there other strategies they might adopt to ease the problem? A related issue: the currency that's remitted are of different types & printing, yet they are all presumably legal tender in the netherworld. Does the government impound the original remitted currency & substitute it for a standardised version? Of course if you postulate that actually the King of Hades can just snap his fingers to adjust such monetary confusion, then you have wished these puzzles away.

    The asset hyperinflation, or excess, is more problematic. There are inequalities of wealth amongst netherworlders relative to the inequalities amongst their descendants on earth, because if you're less well-to-do, then it's likely your family will not have too many gifts & money to burn for you. (We'll assume every netherworlder is well-liked enough to have their families burn stuff for them - one of the simplifying assumptions economists have to make.) Will these wealth inequalities persist perpetually? Remember, folks, forever is a long time. Besides, you might think that those folks on earth who go over-the-top & burn huge houses & heaps of money believe that they might give their netherworldly ancestor an advantage over his peers (or they could be just doing it to show off in front of their mortal peers - we'll put that possibility aside). I'm just concerned about how assets would be distributed, & what prospects there are of actually lessening inequalities, as opposed to just believing (blindly) that they will if you decide to make a big show of it.

    There is also another puzzle: if all this money is getting remitted to netherworlders, literally tons of it, what are the mortals thinking the money will be used for? Perhaps the demand for houses & other assets really vastly outstrips the supply of excess ones, & bidding goes to astronomical levels, so the tons of money will come in handy. But can this hold true for the limited set of goods that netherworlders receive? Perhaps it's time to revise our previous assumption about there being no resources, & no "native" goods & services, in the netherworld. Unfortunately, there is much less information on that from which to go further in exploring the question.

Caveats: I'm hatching these ideas & thoughts out of very little data & observation, I'm afraid. I believe religious scholars & philosophers will be able to shine more light on netherworld economics, should they have the interest. Or perhaps there already have been netherworld economists, & I'm unforgiveably ignorant. If there haven't been, & this pithy post is the first-ever place where these questions have been breached, I'm deeply honoured. I also think that there's plenty of empirical data to hunt down - from the mortal world, that is. A dead netherworld economist is not going to be a very good one - even though he would probably do much better work over there, he/she'll have no way of submitting papers like "Effective Governmental Solutions to Monetary & Asset Hyperinflation of the Netherworld" to mortal-world economics journals.

If one doesn't want to dig too deep into, say, statistics of exactly how much currency is burnt every year, maybe one can write a rollickingly-good short story, in the style of Ted Chiang, or even a novel. Here I'm also inspired by one of Michael Crichton's older works, Eaters of the Dead (also The 13th Warrior, the name of the movie adaptation), which purports to be a scholarly study of the testimony of an (imaginary) eyewitness to the events behind the legend of Beowulf (complete with a bibliography of real & made-up references). One might disguise the short story/novel as, say, a memo originating from the King of Hades's Office that was somehow leaked to the mortal world (insert some plausible physical explanation here). Now that'll be cool.

Religious tolerance, homophobic intolerance

30 August 2003 9:54 PM SGT (link)

The other day I linked to Christopher Hitchens's denuciation of claims that our justice system can rest comfortably on the Ten Commandments, or a subset of it. (Rereading it, I see that some of his comments are overly harsh - but he's an example of a vehement atheist that all too often gets shot down in "polite conversation.") Prof. Volokh now has a post where he compares the respect accorded by Christians to Hindus as part of the general climate of religious tolerance today - specifically with regard to the fact that Hindus violate 3 of the commandments - to the lack thereof accorded to homosexuals. If you remember, I also linked to his previous analysis the claim that homosexuality is "unnatural".

I think his cogent analysis can also be extended a little bit - our PM goes from "homosexuality is not something I or most Singaporeans endorse or encourage" to "we should retain the laws against unnatural sex that hang like a sword of Damocles over homosexuals" without batting an eyelid. Effectively this Asian values talk is like our shared secular religion. Or is this another aspect of the "common space" we need to safeguard that previously led to pious Muslim parents being disallowed from having their children wear tudungs with their school uniforms?

Latest flash mob aborted

30 August 2003 9:41 PM SGT (link)

...Participants were supposed to gather at the Merlion Park at about 3.15 pm.

But the flash mob was cancelled as organisers suspected there were reporters and policemen waiting around as well.

The website has also mysteriously disappeared.

- Channel NewsAsia, Flash mob at Merlion Park cancelled

Whoa, running into some problems.

Linguistic relativity & seeing colours

29 August 2003 11:33 PM SGT (link)

I was reading an interview with Ted Chiang at BookSense when this caught my eye:

...Do you think that different cultures view the world differently due to their different languages?

Certainly language is closely tied to culture, and there are ideas -- especially culturally-bound ones -- that are easier to express in one language than in another. But the idea that language ultimately determines how one perceives reality, known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, has largely been discredited. So far, all the evidence indicates that translation is possible, and that wouldn't be the case if speakers of different languages perceived reality in fundamentally different ways.

But I still think the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a fascinating idea. I suppose I could have chosen some other way for my protagonist to gain a radically different worldview -- drugs, or perhaps meditation -- but none of the alternatives seemed as interesting to me as language.

- BookSense, an interview of Ted Chiang

This question refers to Chiang's story Story of Your Life which I discussed earlier, where the disparity between human & the alien "heptapod" language was symptomatic of a totally different way of thinking. Coincidentally, I remember that I was once troubled by the extreme version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but Trask's Language: The Basics ameliorated my puzzlement somewhat. (I wrote about it in April, but with regards to its very interesting discussion of semantics.)

Wikipedia's brief explanation of the hypothesis is good:

...Central to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the idea of linguistic relativity --that distinctions of meaning between related terms in a language are often arbitrary and particular to that language. Sapir and Whorf took this one step further by arguing that a person's world view is largely determined by the vocabulary and syntax available in his or her language (linguistic determinism).

- Wikipedia, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

A good example Wikipedia mentions is the function of Newspeak in George Orwell's 1984, where much effort is devoted to creating a stripped-down version of English that aims to reduce all possible nuances & flavours behind words & to literally make heretical thoughts unthinkable:

...To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in statements such as 'This dog is free from lice' or 'This field is free from weeds'. It could not be used in its old sense of 'politically free' or 'intellectually free', since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. ...Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by the cutting down of word choices to a minimum.

- George Orwell, Appendix to 1984, "The Principles of Newspeak"

My personal experience of something akin to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was when I encountered the Japanese word 青い, aoi, pronounced Ah-O-eee, which was translated as a colour that ranges from English's blue to green! This was quite shocking to me: for a moment I fancied that Japanese native speakers do not merely have a different colour name, but that they see blue-to-green things differently from English speakers, or speakers of other languages with other differences in colour terminology. (That is, I assumed that had they wanted to differentiate "blue" from "green", they would have done so.) This is something like the extreme form of the hypothesis, or linguistic determinism. Could your language really determine to such a great extent your perception of the world?

In Trask's book, he gives even more extreme examples of languages which not only "mix together" the "English" colours, but also have something like just three or four names for colours. Then he pointed out that a seminal study of this linguistic issue, he said, had disproved linguistic determinism with regard to colours. In experiments with speakers of various languages, especially those of tribes & cultures which had less colour words than English, it was shown that while the names might differ, the "focal points" of colour words - the shade that the speaker would select as a stereotypical example of the colour - was shared by all! Now this is a shock coming after the first shock.

What's more, it seems the colour words all occur in a particular order amongst the languages studied. If a tribe had, say, three colour words (I think that was the least they found), they would have the focal points of black, white & red respectively, red meaning something like lipstick-red (& here Trask wryly said he means the shade of red before lipstick started becoming available in 8,000 colours, or something like that). The subsequent focal points are something-like-blue & so on - I have to get that book, & find out which study it was, to make sure.

If the findings have been verified & confirmed, it shows that the ability to identify & classify colours is a common feature of humanity, & not unduly influenced by the language we use. In fact, the extreme form of the hypothesis is refuted easily enough by our everyday experiences - sometimes we have a thought, then try a word & say "no that's not the right word", & then afterwards we usually think of the right word, the most suitable word or best fit, or consult a thesaurus. Also, how would children learn a language if they couldn't even think with no language? A harsh stance on linguistic determinism would also mean translation between languages would be impossible, or at least very flawed.


29 August 2003 10:00 PM SGT (link)

I got this bright idea to buy the notes for the introductory Japanese module - handwriting & basic vocabulary - to see what they're doing in the class I couldn't bid for (as mentioned here). But I was alarmed by these two paragraphs in the "Prerequisites and Preclusions" section:

...This module is for complete beginners of learning Japanese language [sic]. If, in the course of this module, it has made clear [sic] that you are a "pseudo-beginner", Centre for Language Studies reserves the right to remove you from this module with a penalty as below. If you are not sure about your proficiency level in Japanese you need to meet and consult with Ms Walker as soon as possible (preferably before module bidding starts).

"If in the course of his module it becomes clear that a student has a greater knowledge of or background in the language than he has revealed or acknowledged, Centre for Language Studies reserves the right to remove him from the class and the module, and the student will have to accept the consequences of this removal (e.g. getting an F grade for the module)."

- Professor Peter Reeves, Director for CLS

Now, I knew about the preclusions to this module - previous versions of the same module in NUS, or GCE O/AO/A-level Japanese, or JLPT Level 4 - & vaguely about how one should not deceive the staff about these qualifications, but this "pseudo-beginner" rhetoric is a grave escalation. It seems that one may be unceremoniously evicted from the class not only if one in fact has the above qualifications, & lied about not having them, but also when you have a "greater knowledge of or background in the language than he has revealed or acknowledged".

What worries me is that this can be interpreted broadly. What if one has no formal qualifications, but one did have some private lessons? Self-studying? Or what if one has watched enough Jap dramas or listened to enough J-pop to know some of the more popular expressions & words? I mean, if you've watched as many dramas as I have, it's hard not to get the idea about what, say, tadaima means. Must people like me who have informal, but no formal, experience in Japanese unlearn what we know? Is CLS trying to, with this Procrustean policy, enforce some kind of egalitarianism run amok? so that all its students begin as blank slates? If one happens to progress faster than the others, will that lead to the ignominious fate of being labelled a "pseudo-beginner"? That's the danger I see.

Of course, in practice I think CLS will only "prosecute" those who do not reveal their true qualifications, & label as pseudo-beginners those who presumably can pass the placement test, but still take up the module. But that still cannot ward against the determined actor-cum-cheater who is out to put on a façade of beginner-ness. I still find it interesting that language studies is practically the only area where the faculty regards such "cheating" with such seriousness, & deals out "punishment" with such severity. Of course, if you did lie about not having a precluded module when in fact you did, that's something. But I think you'd agree that's quite different from what CLS describes above. It seems to demonstrate an outright hostility to students.

If you were a Galois or Gauss, nobody would condemn you as a pseudo-beginner in Mathematics classes. If you had the calibre of Einstein, nobody would give you an F for Physics if you exhibit "greater knowledge of or background" in the curriculum, & were not careful enough to hide it from the teachers. Even in the arts, it's quite unthinkable that teachers would take unkindly to students who are visibly coping better. In fact, they will probably love you for bringing up the level of discussion & exchange of ideas. It seems to be only in languages where you get suspected of hanky-panky if you demonstrate some interest beforehand, enthusiasm & perhaps flair for the language. Why not give people the benefit of the doubt? Why assume they are doing something as illogical & time-wasting as taking a module they're already good at, just for the sake of the credits?

Hell is the Absence of God

29 August 2003 9:19 PM SGT (link)

I had some more thoughts on some of the stories when briefly chatting with Prof. Holbo today about the book, especially Hell is the Absence of God. I noticed that while Ted Chiang closely modelled his universe in the story on fundamentalist Christian beliefs, like angels, heaven & hell, & a big role for God in human lives, he did deliberately (in my opinion) leave out the aspect of eternal damnation for the wicked & evil in hell. His hell is in fact a pretty "pleasant" place from our perspective: people are not punished for anything, certainly not anything like in Dante's vivid imagination, but they just lead their lives in a place which is untouched by God's influence & presence (hence the title). I do believe they even get to stay there forever because they are immortal, & in fact the protagonist Neil Fisk, a handicapped man, even looks forward to when he can live as a normal person (because his handicap will be removed). It's practically like a palatial retirement home for a third-world tyrant in exile!

Anyway, I think you'll see, if you read the story, that it was important to remove this traditional aspect of the Christian hell, because it brings along with it the idea that people should be intimidated by the prospect of eternal damnation & punishment, not merely exile from God. Neil Fisk, unlike most of his fellows, is not overly concerned with his afterlife - he had resigned himself to going to hell, which in the story's context is not as bad as it sounds "...Nothing in his upbringing or his personality led him to pray to God for strength or for relief." That, until the death of his wife Sarah. If the religious cosmogony included the large negative of punishment, as a threat, besides the large positive, being close to God, or joining God (if one went to Heaven), it would severely skew Neil's intentions.

Also, reading the conclusion, & thinking about it in my mind, made me realise its similarity to the ending of George Orwell's 1984. In both, the protagonists' will has essentially been broken by a superior force, in the former the heavenly light from God, the latter by his interrogator's Room 101 torture. Reason has been expurgated, to be replaced by faith, blind faith if you will. Two and two can make five, love becomes unconditional. It's also ironic that a godless totalitarian state can end up playing the same role of religion to the pple it rules.

I'm also beginning to have some ideas on what kind of a thesis I want to develop, in studying Plato's Euthyphro & Hell is the Absence of God - how morality is tangled up with religion. I also have what I think is a great title, thank you: Morality is the Absence of God. That's a start.

Stories of Your Life and Others

28 August 2003 10:46 PM SGT (link)

I've had this collection of science fiction stories by Ted Chiang in my sights for a while, & when in the context of Euthyphro-related fiction, Prof. Holbo highly recommended it, I thought it would be a good time to get down to it. & I was enthralled. Ted Chiang is the most "decorated" (by awards) young SF writer, & rightfully: I've not read a richer science fiction collection since Asimov's I, Robot (I wrote about it briefly last December) - & those stories are similar in studying the various ways by which the Laws of Robotics could still lead to contradictions & dangers for both robots & humans. Ted Chiang's stories, though, are diverse & rich, & comparisons have been made to Neal Stephenson & Richard Powers, which should give you some idea of his literary interests. However, I have to say that Chiang is much easier to read. Chiang has a knack of throwing two or three interesting ideas together, from disparate fields like engineering, physics, mathematics, religion, biology etc., & seeing how they interact in the framework of interesting stories.

There are deep philosophical & intellectual ideas in practically every story. In a postscript, Ted Chiang says that Tom Disch, writer & critic, called his first published story Tower of Babylon "Babylonian science fiction" - that is apt. Indeed, "what if men built a tower from Earth to Heaven - and broke through to Heaven's other side?" You might not understand what Chiang is getting at without this little hint - he has put himself into the role of a Babylonian with a small part in building the Tower of Babel, & also assumed the truth of the Babylonian cosmology, with a twist. This is something which unsteadies you until you catch on & see the beauty behind such a thought experiment. This is more like historical fiction or what-if historical speculation rather than science fiction which usually puts the strangeness of its world in the future. In Seventy-two Letters, he plants us in the familiar environment of 19th century gentleman science, but with a science of nomenclature, or the "doctrine of names," & homunculi (miniature versions of humans pre-formed in the sperm cell, in an early biological theory that in our world has been discredited). Your scientific intuitions are left topsy-turvy with this quasi-Platonic & theological science.

A bit about the weaker - but still good - entries in the middle. Understand has a setting similar to the first half of Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon (reviewed here), where a person's intelligence grows & expands exponentially. Chiang's description of what it might mean to have such super-human intelligence is enchanting, & up to the climax where the protagonist confronts a rival who has had the same operation performed to enhance his intelligence. The aftertaste was not that great though. I'm reminded of my feeling towards X-Men the movie, which can be summarised in the Shudder one gets when Storm (Halle Berry) summons up her powers - her eyeballs turn white, a gust of wind emerges behind her & blows everything, including her target, away. The whole movie is one Shudder moment after another, whether it's Storm or the Magneto-Professor X clash. Understand does it in a more sophisticated, but no less alienating, way. On the other hand, one may expect me to have liked Division by Zero more, since it dwells in speculations about mathematical truth. Basically a mathematician manages to prove that 1=2 (involving division by zero), & hence does better than even Gödel's theories of incompleteness. Not only (by Gödel) is any axiomatic system, like arithmetic, incomplete in the sense that there will always be theorems from a system that cannot be proven to be true or false within the system, this fictional mathematician has seen that mathematics is inconsistent & arbitrary. The story interweaves comments on mathematical truth with the story of how this mathematician deals with her discovery. Unfortunately I found its treatment unsatisfying.

Story of Your Life was unexpectedly touching. It's about the effort by linguists & physicists to communicate with extraterrestrials whose portals have descended en masse on various locations on Earth; the progress in that is interspersed with something like a mother's words to her child, which curiously seems to jump around from the child's adult stage to infancy, until you later realise what bearing this has on the extraterrestrial communication story. Linguistics, "teleological" physics, & a mother's love: it's simply brilliant.

Hell is the Absence of God: This is a title that really reaches out to grab you by the collar. The story is another deceptively simple what-if: "what if the tenets of fundamental Christianity were literally true - angels regularly materialise & dish out miracles & bring those who love God to heaven, while every now & then the ground kind of becomes transparent & Earth dwellers can see Hell for themselves?" Further, what if these angel visitations take place in the form of enormous releases of energy &/or natural disasters that mostly hurt & kill (& condemn to Hell) more than cure & kill (to ascend to Heaven)? The black humour in this world where everyone involved in such visitations guesses & second-guesses & third-guesses etc. God's intentions, & what they should do, is simply delicious. It's amazing that they have time to do anything else! What's more, even though ostensibly this talk of angels & miracles & God can only imply a spiritual-cum-superstitious mindset, there's also the regularity of these angel visitations, & the certainty of hell & heaven, to make me think of it as "Christian science fiction".

Prof. Holbo has thrown down the gauntlet:

...A very good paper topic - if your tutor were willing: don't complain to me if he/she isn't - would be a philosophical interpretation of Chiang's story, in relation to the Euthyphro. HINT: it's all about the extent to which theological reasons can be ethical reasons; more generally, it's about the rationality of belief - reasons to believe, reasons for having beliefs, so forth. Reason and persuasion. That should get you started.

- The Reason & Persuasion blog, Euthyphro-related fiction

I will talk more about Hell is the Absence of God in future posts, & possibly the paper that relates it to issues discussed in Plato's Euthyphro.

Lastly, Liking What You See: A Documentary is the story that Ted Chiang specially wrote for this collection. It's amazingly related to the things I talked about in my review of Shallow Hal. I'll leave this for tomorrow & a separate post - it's getting late.

False WMD tips

28 August 2003 3:51 PM SGT (link)

Frustrated at the failure to find Saddam Hussein's suspected stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, U.S. and allied intelligence agencies have launched a major effort to determine if they were victims of bogus Iraqi defectors who planted disinformation to mislead the West before the war.

The goal, according to a senior U.S. intelligence official, "is to see if false information was put out there and got into legitimate channels and we were totally duped on it." He added, "We're reinterviewing all our sources of information on this. This is the entire intelligence community, not just the U.S."...

- Los Angeles Times, U.S. Suspects It Received False Iraq Arms Tips

This matter of double-crossing defectors, or just misled ones, looks to be one of the reasons for the discrepancy between the intelligence reports & the situation on the ground (e.g. sites which were pinpointed for storing or making WMDs turned out to be clean). But before my learned friend & others decide to jump the gun & say, aha! they had no case - it can't explain all the discrepancies away. The article also has this interesting hypothesis, similar to what I've said:

...Hussein's motives for such a deliberate disinformation scheme may have been to bluff his enemies abroad, from Washington to Tehran, by sending false signals of his military might. Experts also say the dictator's defiance of the West, and its fear of his purported weapons of mass destruction, boosted his prestige at home and was a critical part of his power base in the Arab world.

Hussein also may have gambled that the failure of United Nations weapons inspectors to find specific evidence identified by bogus defectors ultimately would force the Security Council to lift sanctions imposed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. U.S. officials now believe Hussein hoped to then covertly reconstitute his weapons programs.

- Los Angeles Times, U.S. Suspects It Received False Iraq Arms Tips

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