Home > Archives > August 2003 > 21-31 August 2003


21-31 August 2003

31 AugSayounara
31 AugHuh?
30 AugNetherworld economics
30 AugReligious tolerance, homophobic intolerance
30 AugLatest flash mob aborted
29 AugLinguistic relativity & seeing colours
29 AugPseudo-beginners
29 AugHell is the Absence of God
28 AugStories of Your Life and Others
28 AugFalse WMD tips
28 AugMoore's law
28 AugWild boars
28 AugIraq war IV
27 AugCalculus tutorial
27 AugThe end of evolution?
27 AugIraq war IIa: Collective amnesia, WMDs, humanitarian interventions, & the psyche of peaceniks
27 AugIraq war III: Impeachment & timing
27 AugIraq & the war against terrorism II
27 AugA Mathematician's Apology
26 AugIraq & the war against terrorism
26 AugMIT Everyware
25 Aug"The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences"
25 AugJapanese drama databases & more
25 AugGoing to Shanghai
24 AugLink updates
24 AugFlash mobs & blackout crowds
24 AugMore commitment in Iraq; some unsung heroes
23 AugSentence beyond maximum reversed
23 AugNorth Korea
22 AugThe Osaka mystery solved
21 AugFighting yesterday's battles
21 AugBach's invention
21 AugThe multiverse
21 AugStoned oracle
21 AugMissed chance, or megalomania?
21 AugFlash mobs in Washington D.C.

< Previous: 11-20 August 2003


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 http://lzydata.tripod.com/blog/ 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

Moore's law

28 August 2003 3:46 PM SGT (link)

The row over the boulder-sized version of the so-called "Ten Commandments," and as to whether they should be exhibited in such massive shape on public property, misses the opportunity to consider these top-10 divine ordinances and their relationship to original intent. Judge Roy Moore is clearly, as well as a fool and a publicity-hound, a man who identifies the Mount Sinai orders to Moses with a certain interpretation of Protestantism. But we may ask ourselves why any sect, however primitive, would want to base itself on such vague pre-Christian desert morality (assuming Moses to be pre-Christian)...

- Slate, Moore's Law: The immorality of the Ten Commandments.

Christopher Hitchens goes through the Ten Commandments & demolishes the rogue judge's case about them being the basis for the present-day US justice system, not to mention any justice system, or even system of morality. It's devastating.

Wild boars

28 August 2003 3:43 PM SGT (link)

...The reasons so many wild boars are infesting the numerous parks and forest areas of the German capital are many, including the fact, obvious in the Grunewald, that most of the trees are oaks, and acorns are a wild boar's favorite food.

In addition, the fall of the Berlin Wall 14 years ago eliminated the main physical barrier between Berlin and the surrounding countryside, so many wild boars migrated into the city.

- New York Times 28 Aug, Liebchen, There's a Piggish Eater on the Lawn

And you thought we had it bad with crows. Read the article for more astonishing examples of what other wildlife roams the streets of Berlin.

Iraq war IV

28 August 2003 10:56 AM SGT (link)

a) "Briefly on WMDs again: before the war, peaceniks did not say "Saddam, as a matter of fact, does not have WMDs, & these inspections are unnecessary, & any war waged on him would be grossly unjust."

It's the hawks who said the opposite

I don't really know what Eugene means here. If he's saying that war supporters said the opposite, that's very true - that's what I meant. What I also said was that peaceniks were not entirely opposed to war supporters' reasoning. To repeat: they assumed, along with the rest of us, that Saddam did retain some WMDs. Now, with no WMDs found, they want to change history & say "oh, we were deceived, Blair & Bush were sexing up the intelligence!" That's the revisionism that unfortunately no one is exposing.

b)"As for whether national security has been threatened, I will say that the Bush administration had been perfectly clear in its published National Security doctrine post-9/11 that there was a role for pre-emption, that the US could no longer sit & wait for terrorists to attack the US, or worse, obtain WMDs to do so"

Pre-emptive strikes aren't good for the matter. It's a terrible notion and most statesmen avoid it. In fact, pre-emptive strikes are almost never "just". Remember, we're talking about war here, not shopping, or surfing the internet. Lives are lost. There must be REASONS to justify a pre-emptive strikes and darn good ones. Sure they had good reasons - see Claim C

I didn't say we should give Bush or any American president carte blanche to decide on pre-emptive strikes. For instance, in November 2002, a Predator drone fired on a car in Yemen carrying 6 suspected al-Qaeda members (CNN, Bergen: Attack marks 'new phase'). Although afterwards the Pentagon/White House said that they did get permission from the Yemeni government, & didn't just go into another country's territory with guns blazing, it's still troubling that these suspected terrorists were not accorded due process, especially when they were not in a combat situation, as you might say for Afghanistan or Iraq later.

Most statesmen did not take kindly to the idea. Well of course not, they had to be mindful of the consequences. But they didn't live in today's world. We're in a world where global terrorists are seeking to acquire WMDs & dirty bombs to set off in urban areas. What's more, they don't have a nice return address which the countries attacked can go seek revenge for after the fact, like if the Soviets decided to rain down some nukes on American cities. That's why I said there is a role for pre-emption: meaning that even though Saddam hadn't bothered anyone in years, the fact that he was uncooperative with regards to his WMD makes him a legitimate target. A role, but not the only role.

c) "The intelligence was good, & the reasoning was logical "

This also fits in with the claim that Iraq has siphoned off the weapons. That was easy. And not use them.

Now this is really coming out of nowhere. The reasoning was logical - no it doesn't matter, it could fit another explanation just as well (which nobody graciously offered when we were building up to war in Iraq). Peaceniks are refusing to acknowledge that there is some mystery here about Saddam's behaviour, consistent with believing that he did have WMDs. Give a good explanation for that & I'll admit that the hawks' case for war in Iraq may have been gravely mistaken.

d) "I was trying to show that as much as we may sympathise with the little guy, we should see what we're dealing with here. Simply sympathising with the underdog works well only when the consequences aren't too serious (like watching football)."

Consistent policy IS actually important. What kind of message are you trying to bring across when you attack the weaker deviants and talk to the big ones. So if you're deviant you should build up cos u get away by being strong! Small fries like SH get kicked around.

See the table for an example of a possible unethical scenario.

The idea that our treatment of national security threats should be linearly proportional to their threat-worthiness stems from the idea, which I have previously debunked, that there is a rule that fits all these cases, that we need not consider where we're coming from - the history behind the disputes & unhappiness - & or what the situation on the ground is like. & again Eugene is committing the fallacy that the "small fry" must automatically be sympathised with - I've also debunked that. More importantly, foreign policy is not a PR demonstration. Any administration must convince the people's representatives & the people, & for the US even the world, that it has sound reasons for something serious like war. But it doesn't mean that the statesmen have to be manipulated at every step by public opinion like puppets. Any message the administration shows is for the benefit of its people, its allies & its supporters, not its enemies.

I haven't had time to look at the table yet. I will do so for part IIIa.

e) "Actually one can make the case for humanitarian intervention against Saddam, & a pretty strong one too "

Ok, wait. First, HI wasn't a reason. Then now one CAN make a case for it. But wait, later on, it's rhetoric and no one really believes it. Hmm.

I can go to NUS by a direct bus, or by MRT & then transferring to bus 96. If I choose to take the direct bus, it doesn't mean that I'm forbidden from using the MRT-bus method, or that after all, I can't get to NUS that way. It simply means that I've made a choice. Peaceniks are so confused about even their own rhetoric about humanitarian intervention that they can't even recognise a good case when they see one, that they have to invent spurious objections like the supposed hypocrisy of attacking Saddam instead of, say, Mugabe. Or maybe it's because they don't like the guy in the Oval Office that might have advocated the case.

f) "Chamberlain was in accepting the Munich agreement with Hitler regarding Czechoslovakia, & he has been roundly criticised ever after"

The context is so different! SH maybe evil, perverted, a psychopath but he hasn't been invading Latin America. (and yes, I'm not denying he did invade Kuwait. Arguably, that's when it all started!)

(another interesting thing to ponder, something I genuinely don't know/ can't figure out : what WOULD happen if there hadn't been appeasement?)

See, I tried to pre-empt (no pun intended) the objection that opposing war against Saddam is not appeasement. I agree with that. & Eugene, on his part, agrees that Saddam is no angel (no need for the "maybe"). He even admits that Saddam started this whole thing with Kuwait, that otherwise the world might not have cared much about his war with Iran or the Kurds. Yet with the earlier "small fry" language, he's trying to give Saddam a cloak of righteousness, or at least make him look pitiful. There is a conflict here - there was nothing pitiful about Saddam at all.

I didn't intend to use the example of Chamberlain as an analogy about appeasement, or supporting any general attitude towards war-mongering. I was using it as an extreme case of how one's need to feel pacifist, & hence enlightened, may escalate into self-denial about reality. Please read the above extract in its proper context.

g) the "peaceniks" are ignoring facts "To be sure, I'm not opposed to criticism of the administration, or of the status quo. But there is a difference between that & wilfully ignoring the facts & the real situation." Take a look at claim C again.

Don't really understand the reference. Is Eugene saying the facts are somehow wrong? Or, as in C above, that they can be interpreted in a way that's beneficial to the case for peace?

h) And this is the claim I genuinely have never heard before (the weapons being siphoned off claim is at least imaginable), the impeachment trials. For this let's do a break down. But first let me say that I didn't read the Time article because I would have to pay. I did see the picture with the heading though but I hope that is not the basis of the argument
i) Attacking Iraq was a pre 9-11 stance. Even in 1998
ii) Clinton and Bush are different people with "different strategies"
iii) but wait, Clinton wanted to go to war with Iraq anyway
iv) then again that was derailed by the impeachment whence the country supposedly ground to a halt
v) Of course FP was paralysed for the next few years. SH got away, even though there was the intention to get rid of him all the time anyway
vi) Oh wait, it's the post-911 pre-emptive stance that's why we're doing it.

Haha I hope Eugene is genuinely confused & that he doesn't really believe that hawks used this muddled logic. I will try to clarify the argument here:

  1. Attacking Iraq before 9/11 was hardly a stance, it was reality. Baghdad & other places were bombed in 1998 to disable military & political infrastructure. Anti-aircraft weapons & air surveillance facilities in the no-fly zones were routinely bombed by US & UK aircraft, for more than a decade. It was the idea of actually going in with ground troops & toppling Saddam that was quite unthinkable. That would take a much greater commitment, military & political, than simply resuming patrols & some missile attacks.

  2. Is Eugene saying Clinton & Bush, both being presidents, necessarily share the same foreign policy? Disregarding 9/11, even? In fact US conservatives were blasting Clinton's foreign policy practically since 1992, saying that he lacks experience (true), that he was a bungler (cf. Somalia), that he wasn't tough enough to deal with attacks (cf. Nairobi & Dar es Salaam US embassy bombings) etc., & now that al-Qaeda grew in stature & power under his watch (IMHO, unfair).

  3. Now, I have no idea what Clinton's real intentions were in dealing with Saddam, & I think neither does Eugene. Maybe he thought some bombings would be enough to deal with his WMD-making capability, & get Saddam back to the negotiating table & agree to let inspectors in again, & it turns out that it wasn't. Maybe he was not confident of gathering support for a bigger campaign to deal with Saddam, so he let it go. Maybe he was more principled & wanted to move towards a bigger campaign, but had no support anywhere. Puzzling out Clinton's real intentions would take a historian with conceivably a lot of access to documents or even the personalities involved. I'm tentatively proposing that impeachment & the resulting unfavourable political climate contributed to his reluctance to go to a wider war against Saddam.

  4. I think Eugene overestimates the influence a president has with regard to waging war. Besides the legal technicalities I mentioned earlier, generally, there is a need to garner a broad base of support from the legislative branch, the military, the general public, & even US allies. The country did not "grind into a halt" as Eugene imagines. Even if Clinton was a secret hawk with regards to Iraq, he probably could not have gotten the country to even focus on the situation there. So far Eugene has not cared to respond to that (admitted) historical speculation.

  5. Foreign policy with regard to Iraq was paralysed, even with the most charitable interpretation. Saddam didn't "get away" anywhere, he was sitting right where people expected him to be, just that there was no consensus, either in the White House or at the Security Council, about how to get him to agree to inspections again.

  6. 9/11 & the threat of terrorists obtaining WMDs from hostile regimes made resolving the Iraq problem imperative to US foreign policy makers. Is that even controversial? Why? Please enlighten us.

Calculus tutorial

27 August 2003 11:20 PM SGT (link)

Today I had my first tutorial for Calculus, & my tutor is A/Prof. Ng Tze Beng, of Calculus, an introduction (a recommended reading) & an enriching module website.

I thought he was great, although I think most of my tutorial-mates would not concur. Before discussing Tutorial 1, he started with some comments on learning calculus. He said that later, perhaps even in the 3rd or honours year, we would learn more on the wider subject of analysis & the truly puzzling nature of the real numbers. He also said something about how we would see that in "measure theory" (?), the number of rational numbers as a part of real numbers is 0, & that of irrational numbers is infinity, meaning that there are not merely a lot of, but uncountable irrational numbers. Then he said that we habitually assume the directionality (not his word) of real numbers, like a > b when a is "to the right of" b on the number line, & he says that this actually has to be built up rigorously with the concept of a "positive cone" (?) P, then later showing that a - b belongs to this set (not sure whether P is a set or not), & hence use that to prove the axioms (or what I thought were the axioms, till now) of arithmetic, like ab > 0.

You may be going, whoa..., by now. Why am I telling you all this? I thought it was mind-boggling & fascinating. His brief presentation of things of which we have no idea how it relates to plain-old calculus was very interesting to me: it's like catching a glimpse of his intellect, & also of how far I have to go in my studies.

However, he may have done it in a gentler way, & not assumed that all of us would be doing third- or honours-year mathematics. (In fact, the tutorial being in the Arts faculty, I suspect probably only I will be.) Later there was even a sustained exchange with a student who asked whether one could sketch a graph to find the solution set for inequalities in cubic or quartic form, that are already factorised properly, like (x - 1)(x - 2)(x - 3) > 0. The question was "can I do this?", but the student meant "can I do this & have it marked correct in exams or tests?" & the prof. was answering "can I do this because I believe it's mathematically correct & rigorous?". So for a while it was very amusing as the two talked past each other.

The answers were respectively, not advisable & no, because we implicitly assume things like the function being continuous, & that in a certain way we were using the results of calculus to attack the problems of a "lower" level, inequalities (I don't think I'll understand that comment by the prof., for the next few years at least.) If it were up to me, I'll try to say that solving inequalities of this form by "tediously" writing out whether each factor is positive or negative, & how they come together, is a more widely-applicable method than sketching a rough-&-ready graph. The prof. was trying to say that complicated functions may not be amenable to graphing - I thought an example at this juncture would be good. But, lastly, I'm still curious. Say we do draw a graph & additionally define the function strictly with some domain & being continuous - would that assuage the mathematical gods?

The end of evolution?

27 August 2003 9:41 PM SGT (link)

...where do we go from here? Have we attained perfection and ceased to evolve?

Many geneticists think that is very unlikely, though few find it easy to say where we are headed or how fast. Until the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, people used to live in small populations with little gene flow between them. That is the best situation for rapid evolution, said Sewall Wright, one of the founders of population genetics. But Sir Ronald A. Fisher, another founder of the discipline, argued that large populations with random mating just what globalization and air travel are helping to bring about were the best fodder for rapid evolution.

- New York Times 24 Aug, The End of Evolution?

A very interesting article at the NYT. Disclaimer: I am not a biologist, by a long way, so if there's anything egregiously wrong with my analysis below, please correct me.

Natural selection

In order to talk about whether there is still evolution amongst humans, I think we must first clarify what evolution is, what components it's made of. The root meaning is that of mutability of species, as opposed to the previously held doctrines of creeds like natural theology which asserted that species were like Platonic ideas, permanent & unchanging. Theologians further developed this belief into a system of Great Chain of Being, where every lifeform had its place in a God-conceived hierarchy of life, culminating in mankind, of course. During the Victorian era of science, many theories were proposed as to exactly how species changed, & the theories of Darwin have gone through the test of time (& science). Here is basically how a particular mechanism of evolution, natural selection, functions:

  1. Populations grow geometrically, resources at most linearly (inspired by Malthus's thesis on population growth).
  2. There is hence a struggle for existence among organisms.
  3. Some organisms are better adapted for survival than others (through some kind of genetic variation, & genetic mutation in the process of conception).
  4. Those organisms better adapted for survival will survive & breed offspring.
  5. Characteristics that enabled the parents to better survive are passed down to their offspring (through heredity).

Besides natural selection, Darwin also studied other mechanisms like sexual selection, but natural selection is rightly given prominence today because of its explanatory power. Theodosius Dobzhansky, geneticist, said that "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution", & those are largely Darwin's theories of evolution.

Let's set aside these other mechanisms for now, & confine ourselves to analysing whether humanity as a species today could possibly still be subject to natural selection.

  1. Constraints on population growth: Even though Malthus's thesis is scarcely 200 years old, the Earth already supports a few times more people than in his time. I remember our human geography textbooks intoning "we've proven Malthus wrong", or something like that. However, even though mankind seems to have been very successful in propagating itself, in terms of numbers, the insects & bacteria still outnumber us. I believe numerical strength is not the only benchmark: what counts is the availability of resources with respect to the species population. For humans, that could extend even to things like metals & fuel supplies.

  2. Struggle for existence: Social Darwinists are notorious for taking Darwin's reasoning of the struggle for existence amongst animals to mean that humans should behave the same way, that the weaker members of our species should not be given help, or (in the extreme form) should be exterminated so that they don't drag down the stronger members of society. However, we are pretty much beyond that. In The Selfish Gene, in a chapter on altruism & kin selection, Richard Dawkins says that the welfare state may be the widest-encompassing altruistic system any species has ever devised. The evils of imperialism & capitalism, where the stronger were the white-skinned & rich bourgeoisie respectively, have been ameliorated with socialism, democracy & respect for human rights. Notwithstanding the poorer, war-torn regions of the world, I think most humans today do not have to struggle for existence. A good career & a fulfilling life, maybe, but mostly premature deaths are self-inflicted, or due to dumb luck, or from disease.

  3. Better adaptation for survival: Genetic variation & mutation is still with us. Individuals are literally individuals, unique in many aspects such as intelligence, beauty, even virility. In fact, individuals may have even gained some adaptation, because the ways of surviving & making a good living, & living offspring, are more diverse than before.

  4. More offspring for better-adapted: Not true for humans. Having children has practically become a lifestyle choice: medically, with the advent of contraceptives, abortion & a greater knowledge of the reproductive process; socially, with those who are more educated choosing to concentrate on their careers instead of undertaking the difficult task of raising children. (I believe it is true in Singapore that generally the less-educated have more children. This has the ugly implication that allowing this will result in "degeneration", when as I've pointed out above, the situation is far more complicated than that.) Also, since the struggle for existence has virtually been abrogated, it doesn't really matter who has more children, since all are pretty successful at the game of survival.

  5. Inheritance of good adaptive characteristics: Through the science of genetics we understand far more about heredity than Darwin & Mendel did. Humanity will soon gain the ability to even alter these characteristics in vitro e.g. to alter genes that led to hereditary diseases.

Perfection, & other misconceptions of Darwinism

A lot of people tend to be glib & careless with the use of words like "perfection" in association with evolution & natural selection e.g. "Have we attained perfection and ceased to evolve?" above. The implication is that evolution is a teleological process with an ultimate goal of perfection. That is emphatically untrue. Natural selection is the (blind) "selection" of organisms with genotypes that result in them having characteristics that are well-adapted to their environments, that allow them to survive better. We can only apply a word like "perfection" to this narrow sense. If the environment were to change drastically, like when a comet struck the Earth around 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs that were "perfectly" (enough) adapted for their environment went extinct, & that was when the mammals took over. Perfection in reference to evolution is not a helpful concept outside of the immediate environment the organism finds itself in.

Artificial selection on ourselves & others

Here is an example of popular Darwinism cited in the article which I believe shows what is wrong with considering humanity as just another species susceptible to natural selection:

...It seems reasonable to predict that the human physical form will stay in equilibrium with its surroundings. If the ozone layer thins, pale skins will be out and dark skins de rigeur. If climate heats up, the adaptations for living in hot places will spread, though it could take tens or hundreds of generations for a new gene to become widespread.

- New York Times 24 Aug, The End of Evolution?

Pale or dark skins cannot become "de rigeur" like fashion. The darkness of one's skin is the product of many generations of offspring, as the author admits later in the paragraph. But more importantly, what about sunblock? If we were talking about some slug with a global population, perhaps then the lighter-skinned ones would be more susceptible to skin cancer & die out, with the species gradually evolving towards a darker skin. But humans have sunblock, & many other avenues to obtain shade besides.

Humanity has other "weapons" with which to survive in our environment, far more so than any other species now or in the past. We are not completely beholden to our genotypes & dumb luck. To take just one example: If we fall sick, we are not wholly dependent on our own bodies & our relatives' care to make us better. We have doctors & a corpus of medical knowledge behind them to treat our illnesses. This is not to preclude other species from ever developing their own forms of "tribal" medicine: we just do it much better these days.

Artificial selection was used by Darwin & others to illustrate the process by which pigeon-breeders & farmers selected the animals with good qualities they sought, like for chicken farmers, the ability to lay a lot of eggs - & over time, indeed you had chickens who could lay more & bigger eggs. He used this to demonstrate how variations (sub-species) originate, & as an analogue of how natural selection could work its effect on species in nature. I argue that artificial selection is not merely human-to-animal, but human-to-human as well. We have subverted the process of natural selection for ourselves. No longer do humans produce an excess of population relative to resources (except in poorer regions of the world). No longer do those less adapted for survival have to perish & leave no offspring. No longer does survival mean merely getting food, staying clear of predators & leaving children - its definition has been expanded & diversified. No longer are offspring more likely from the better-adapted. No longer are we beholden to our heritable genotypes.

What's more, not only have we "defeated" natural selection, we have so radically changed the environment all over the world so that organisms have become adapted to our existence. We in effect have become the environment-makers for them. Besides the artificial selection of domesticated animals & crops, many other organisms have "made peace" with us because they make a good living that way e.g. cockroaches, crows, animals in the zoo. If the environment suddenly changed one day so that humans would all suffer from some debilitating disease, & go extinct, many other species would join us to the grave, particularly if they were not nimble enough to adapt.

Other forms of evolution

While evolution in the form of natural selection has become distorted by the powers & achievements of humanity so as to become unrecognisable, we should not assume that evolution in the sense of change has also been abolished. On the biological front, humanity is increasing its understanding of genomes - plant, animal & human - & its capabilities for manipulating it to our desires & wishes. What we should do with these, & what we shouldn't, is a question to engage bioethicists & the general population for the near future. To see how this is radically different from natural selection, witness the advent of vaccination for smallpox. Orthodox natural selection has it that organisms who have developed a resistance to this lethal disease would have a higher chance of survival. With global health measures, nearly everyone has been vaccinated &/or cured of smallpox. The entire human race has enjoyed that higher chance of survival. So it's not only cool gadgets of sci-fi, like brain enhancements or cybernetic implants, that have the potential of remaking humanity.

On non-biological aspects, Richard Dawkins has proposed a science of memetics, where memes are the cultural analogues of genes in being replicating agents. Genes exist in the form of DNA; propagate themselves through organisms' offspring; adapt & change, when interacting with other genes, & through the phenotype (physical & biological form of the individual organism) with the environment. Memes exist in the form of thoughts, perhaps certain patterns in the brain; propagate from person to person, through anything from a conversation to the mass media; adapt & change depending on their "stickability" in the minds of the people who are thinking the meme. He suggests commercial soundbites, bits of trite songs, quotations, even political ideas as examples of memes. Meme complexes, like collections of genes that work well together, could be akin to things like religion or books. If memetics is a useful concept, memes will be the new level at which evolution, in anything resembling natural selection, operates in an algorithmic way.

Progress & evolution

...Society, and the knowledge needed to survive in it, seems to get ever more complex, suggesting that human social behavior will continue to evolve. Unfortunately, evolution has no concept of progress, so behavioral change is not always for the better. "I suspect that our social behavior evolves rapidly but that much of it changes direction over time," said Dr. Henry C. Harpending, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Utah.

- New York Times 24 Aug, The End of Evolution?

The reporter seems unhappy that evolution will not be the miracle process that can tell us what's right & what's wrong. (Recall that Social Darwinists claim it could, that we should follow the dictate of Nature.) But while evolution is not progressive in the usual sense - intellectual, spiritual, moral, behavioural - it is progressive with respect to survival. Now that humans have "risen above" natural selection (I use these scare quotes to emphasise that I don't intend people to read them literally), & we've got survival pretty much covered, as the article states elsewhere, we will just have to look elsewhere for our moral compass & "what is the meaning of life?" answers.

Speaking of progress & evolution, one of my readings in the USP writing module is Herbert Spencer's Progress: Its Law and Cause. We've done a close reading of this article, & I have some other things to say about its content. For next time.

Iraq war IIa: Collective amnesia, WMDs, humanitarian interventions, & the psyche of peaceniks

27 August 2003 7:55 PM SGT (link)

(Continued from here.)

Collective amnesia

I wonder if "spicing up" is becoming of a democratic government, especially when it turns out to be ostensibly wrong. So great, you can't find the weapons, you cook up a story on where the weapons went. Bear in mind that lives, innocent lives were lost, soldiers from US had to go to the ME to fight on a distant land. How can it be OK to justify a war on shaky grounds?

Let's assume that they do have chemical or biological weapons, although it's now doubtful whence and where this claim came about, why is Iraq special? That points back to the claim that Iraq is special because of some mysterious reason. See my second paragraph.

See, this is what happens when you try to do foreign policy in a vacuum! Let's go back to 1991. Part of the ceasefire agreement that Saddam had with the UN was that he would "destroy, or render harmless" his WMDs. That was why UNSCOM was formed to do inspections: to verify that this had been done. This was also aimed at removing the threat Saddam & his WMDs posed to the Kurds, Kuwait, & a decade back, Iran. If we say that the aim of the 2002-3 inspections was to complete its work to end Gulf War I, that would not be a stretch.

When peaceniks perform collective amnesia & forget why there were inspections & sanctions on Iraq in the first place, & even that there were chemical & biological weapons to account for & destroy (!), it's understandable that they would object to war against Iraq. They probably don't even know that Saddam has been quiet these years because he was constrained by the no-fly zones & sanctions. Out of sight, out of mind. Except that that doesn't solve the problem: sanctions was a bad solution mainly because it harmed the Iraqi people more than Saddam, & people were actually advocating removing them, without any solution to deal with the WMDs.


Briefly on WMDs again: before the war, peaceniks did not say "Saddam, as a matter of fact, does not have WMDs, & these inspections are unnecessary, & any war waged on him would be grossly unjust." I think anyone who said that would be shunned. No, they said "let's give Saddam some time to cooperate; we need not rush into war without verifying that he had already destroyed his WMDs." With the benefit of hindsight, & the worrying & perplexing lack of WMDs found in post-war Iraq, peaceniks are understandably tempted to revise history & put themselves on the right side.

(This is different from, say, the US conservatives gloating about how the peaceniks said the Iraq war would cause massive casualties on both sides, when that didn't happen, & incite the Arab street against the US, which was short-lived. In this case, both sides made opposing predictions, & the war supporters came out right.)

The war against Iraq was not a treasure hunt, where one side says that there is treasure there, & the other says no, & in the end it turns out there wasn't, & the latter is correct & "wins." Both sides agreed Iraq very probably retained some WMDs (please search for Colin Powell's presentation to the Security Council on the matter) - they just were of different opinions on how best to handle the matter. That's why I'm concerned about the missing WMDs, & not ashamed or embarrassed. The intelligence was good, & the reasoning was logical - Saddam had failed to account for all the WMDs he possessed & was supposed to have destroyed, & he behaved as if he still had them, so we should assume he still has them.

If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck & quacks like a duck, then it's most probably a duck. But if it's actually a guy in a duck suit, we shall have to reexamine our eyes, & not regret going over to take a closer look.


"Can we hence infer that the US thought "Iraq [was] easier to deal with, [so we'll attack Iraq]"? Saddam was indeed the "smaller" underdog, but that doesn't confer on him any measure of righteousness." - Lzydata

This is too big a jump from the previous line of thought without handling the issue of consistency. Let's see where this came from

"That's why I agree that while the US & South Korea have to be prepared for war, they should not be too eager to champion it, because it's the worst of all options. At the same time, I agree with the US stance up to now, to involve the regional powers like China, Russia, Japan & South Korea, rather than go through the deja vu bilteral rigmarole & get blackmailed again. The Agreed Framework may have pacified Kim for some years, but it was not a permanent solution - the Bush administration's tough stance only hastened its collapse. North Korea still poses a threat, non-aggression treaty or not. With an unpredictable despot ready to launch ballistic missiles at them, & going nuclear, is Japan going to stand idly by & not call for either guarantees of security or a beefed-up military of their own? Ditto South Korea. This is definitely not just the Americans' problem.

Diplomacy & containment are the rational options now, but in the long term, I think regime change, together with commitments from neighbours & the US for reconstruction, should be the outcome to pursue." Lzydata

There is no leap of logic. I was clearly responding to the comment that "...it's a big bully small situation, and you're left wondering, what did the small guy did wrong." I was trying to show that as much as we may sympathise with the little guy, we should see what we're dealing with here. Simply sympathising with the underdog works well only when the consequences aren't too serious (like watching football).

Humanitarian intervention

I tend to be sceptical when people take a quasi-humanitarian stance towards IR and the use of force. And I think there's a huge problem when one USES humanitarian issues as a guise. I'm trying to figure out what some of the hawks are thinking. In such issues, inevitably there would be disagreement, and the point of departure usually stems from certain fundamental assumptions and world-view. The hawks probably adopt the view that national security is paramount, and that the morality of war is subsumed by the importance of national security. (This is a whole issue altogether btw) Actually this stance is actually dubious if one considers whether national security has been threatened, and why the humanitarian justifications when one adopts such a world view. My conjecture is that the realists need to co-opt the liberals using this approach.

Actually one can make the case for humanitarian intervention against Saddam, & a pretty strong one too (assuming one casts away the misguided notion that we must intervene in all or none so that we are not hypocritical). I believe Blair was the leader who made more appeals to the public to support the war based on humanitarian reasons (over & above the rhetorical advantage this gives).

However, that was not the case the coalition made, rhetoric aside. Nobody would have taken it seriously if the idea that we should attack Saddam because of his oppressive ways, absent any other considerations, were floated. That would apply more to folks like Mugabe & the Myanmar junta: neighbours & powers may be interested to negotiate, & send human rights appeals, but military intervention is untenable.

The funny situation we have here is that while the war supporters never consciously made a case for humanitarian intervention without any other reason, the peaceniks assumed they did, & what's more, did in a way that's objectionable to them - hence the talk about the guise. However, I have shown earlier that their reasoning itself collapses on further analysis: had the coalition given humanitarian concerns more prominence, the peaceniks' objections would be invalid & problematic themselves, so the humanitarian concerns, ironically, would stand! I believe the peaceniks' distrust of Bush & the conservatives caused them to doubt even their own credo about multilateralism & protecting human rights.

As for whether national security has been threatened, I will say that the Bush administration had been perfectly clear in its published National Security doctrine post-9/11 that there was a role for pre-emption, that the US could no longer sit & wait for terrorists to attack the US, or worse, obtain WMDs to do so. Hence, post-9/11, it has become even more unacceptable for regimes that are hostile to the US & its allies to possess WMDs - even if it does not use them - because they can link up with terrorist groups like al-Qaeda to do so. We are beyond the days of waiting for smoke clouds billowing or armies streaming over borders before we act against threats to national security.

A legitimate objection to an overly harsh interpretation of the Bush doctrine is that the US needs its allies, & it's becoming clearer now that it could do with more friendly boots on the ground in Iraq & Afghanistan. Another objection is the danger of US hitting out at countries or groups without due cause - another reason for multilateralism. What we cannot do is ignore the history behind this new doctrine & pretend nothing has happened to bring it about. The case that Iraq was & is a threat to the world - not even especially to the US & UK - was clear in the Security Council deliberations. The question is how to deal with it. When one says that "liberals" (peaceniks, more specifically) still need to be convinced on these points, I will wonder where they've been.

Some history, & the psyche of peaceniks

I wish to indulge in a little speculation, perhaps unfair to some of you. Earlier I said that perhaps peaceniks have let their hatred of Bush & his domestic policies get to them when considering the issue of war in Iraq. Here, I want to propose another reason why peaceniks believe the things they believe.

In the early days when the question of new inspections was being debated, I thought that the Bush administration was heavily biased towards attacking Saddam from the start, that the move for renewed inspections at the UN, after Blair's persuasion, was a mere farce, that regardless of the outcome of the inspections, we're heading for war anyway. I don't know about you, but offering a Hobson's Choice - "you can have your car in any colour, so long as it's black" - to someone, no matter how unsavoury the person was, is not my idea of playing fair. There was a real danger of a foregone conclusion about WMDs: if the inspectors find them, then aha, Saddam was hiding them; if they don't, then Saddam must be stonewalling the inspectors - both leading to military action. Could there be a way where Saddam could demonstrate his harmlessness & disprove the US & UK case against him, so that we can avert a war?

Then as time & the debates at the Security Council wore on, I began to sympathise with the pro-war cause. Saddam was only allowing inspections this time because of the great global attention & the US military buildup around Iraq. The French & Germans were proposing extended inspections, months if need be - & the global attention & US military pressure could not persist for that long. This is something I think need not be doubted, & indeed was something Saddam was counting on. If the Security Council could be tied up in interminable debates, & eventually the world took its gaze away from his country, he could return to his pleasant routine of ignoring his obligations under international law. That's why I applauded the US & UK for acting when they might so easily have backed off from doing so.

If the French & Germans were prepared to send their own troops, & to back up the severe consequences they had promised in Resolution 1441, that would be something. But they weren't: at one point Chirac even said that his country would not agree to anything that could lead to war. This kind of imperious grandstanding was disgusting. They had one mantra, inspections, but no answer to what the severe consequences would be. What special reason did Saddam have for needing a few more months, when he had not deigned to cooperate in the present month or so, or heck, for the last 12 years?

I was, & am, sympathetic to the pacifist cause. I do believe that there should be less war & violence around the world. However, it's dangerous to be a pacifist at the expense of other rational concerns. Chamberlain was in accepting the Munich agreement with Hitler regarding Czechoslovakia, & he has been roundly criticised ever after. (Note that I'm not accusing peaceniks of being appeasers, whose traditional meaning is shirking a clear & present threat, or an out-&-out attack.) I believe that peaceniks feel good about being peace-loving - it's got an aura of respectability & enlightenment, "I'm above that sort of thing". People also wanted to hop on the bandwagon of opposing the war, seeing its near-inevitability because of Bush's convictions & Saddam's behaviour, because then they could see themselves & be seen as having considered the issues at hand (when they hadn't), & standing up to the juggernaut of US soft & hard power. Hence the global protests, & ineffectual movements like ribbons opposing the war etc.

This is a very simplistic analysis, & it may be all bunk. To be sure, I'm not opposed to criticism of the administration, or of the status quo. But there is a difference between that & wilfully ignoring the facts & the real situation. That's why I think peaceniks need to reexamine their motivations for opposing the war.

Iraq war IIIa: Impeachment & timing

27 August 2003 6:27 PM SGT (link)

(I'm naming this part III even though technically part II isn't finished yet. I'll call those instalments part IIa etc. Part III addresses Eugene's latest post.)

...he [me] claims that the US public had wanted to go to war with Iraq long before 9-11, and one of the reasons that this was infeasible was due to Clinton's impeachment. If that answers the timing issue well, great, but I guess there are 101 things happening in US. So does any of this have to do with the stock bubble, rise in fixed income bonds and what not? Bringing the impeachment in is one step too far.

- Eugene's latest post

Before Gulf War II, some had argued for military intervention to topple Saddam, sometimes because they said the sanctions were not sustainable, sometimes because they thought the US owed the southern Shiites something after calling on them to resist Saddam in 1991 & then leaving them to the mercy of Saddam's Republican Guard. But let's face it: there was no political will, or consensus, for war: in 1998 when Saddam kicked out the inspectors (Clinton was also embroiled in the impeachment trials at the time), or January 2001 when Bush took power, or in the aftermath of 9/11 when the priority was al-Qaeda. Even if it had been more right, with the benefit of hindsight, to force Saddam back to agreeing with inspections in 1998, it wasn't politically realistic then. That's your timing for you =)

- what I said

I guess I wasn't clear enough - after all, I didn't have time to complete the Part II post because I was rushing to a lecture. When I say that the Clinton impeachment trials affected the White House's abilities to deal with the Iraq situation in 1998, I'm not grasping at straws.

May I present my piece of evidence, your Honour: the cover of Time magazine, 28 December 1998. I happened to see this when I was doing some spring cleaning some months ago - being the year-end issue, it was at the top of the pile. While everyone can see that the big story is "The Impeachment of the President 1998", with portraits of Starr & Clinton, may I also draw your attention to the top left corner, "The Iraq bombings." What were those? Bombings to disable Iraqi military & political infrastructure. Even though the UN inspectors had been chased out, there was no consensus in the US or at the UN Security Council about what to do, & gradually things went back to normal, except that there were no more inspections & Saddam could basically do what he want with WMDs, within the constraints of the sanctions. (See, CNN, What Saddam's got, an article written in May 2002.)

The Time cover struck me as illustrative of the US situation at the time. With the poisonous atmosphere in both Houses of Congress, & President Clinton's lack of credibility, to say the least, it could be said to be politically impossible to move towards a larger conflict. Recall that technically under the US Constitution, only Congress has the power to approve the waging of wars. Though this hasn't been done formally after WWII, presidents usually do not bring the country to war without Congress's implicit or explicit approval. (Bush managed to pass a resolution for action against Iraq in 2002, together with general support from the American public.)

The fact that we didn't see Gulf War II happen in 1998, that Clinton after all did not apply greater military pressure to get Saddam to cooperate & disarm, or else be deposed, can also be attributed to differences in strategy & thinking between Clinton & Bush, & the bull in the foreign policy china shop, 9/11. Impeachment was by no means the only reason. I hope it's understood that timing does play a part in foreign policy affairs: I'm just aghast at the idea that some could just summon up from nowhere the "right moment to act", which they themselves decline to reveal to the rest of us, & go from there that 2002-3 wasn't the right time, so there's some ulterior motive involved (the conspiracy theory again).

Recent thinking has also caused me to cast doubt on whether the UN Security Council would have passed any resolution that could lead to the invasion of Iraq & toppling of Saddam Hussein, should he have persisted in not cooperating with inspectors, & should the world retain doubts about whether he has been disarmed - even if the administration had been more successful in garnering support. This is less dependent on political circumstances in the White House or elsewhere: the UN is an organisation that treats national sovereignty with paramount importance. The Kuwait invasion was a textbook example of how the SC can operate to act against military aggression (except that in that case it was an uncomplicated matter, like out of the 19th century). However, moving from righting aggression to invading countries or removing regimes because of non-compliance with UN resolutions would cause everyone to skip a beat: are we sure we want to do this? It's a qualitative leap.

That's why the Bush administration was right in going through the UN rather than acting unilaterally or through NATO: it's a logical extension of the failed UN attempts to deal with the threat of Saddam. There was also pro-forma opposition from France, Germany, Russia & China, I daresay more for their wish to counter the US hegemony rather than considering the merits of the case. The same folks who were all ready to remove sanctions suddenly adopted the religion of inspections. They called for extended inspections while taking for granted the US military pressure that was responsible for Saddam agreeing to inspections in the first place! More importantly, they assumed Saddam would cooperate, & had nothing to say about what to do if he didn't.

If peaceniks are offended by the idea that the US military couldn't be there forever to apply pressure on Saddam, that there had to be an endgame, well, they are being unrealistic. If peaceniks are offended by the idea that partisan bickering in the White House can decide whether wars are conducted, well, it's not a perfect world. The righteousness of wars should be just & unambiguous, but the manner in which they occur may not be.

Iraq & the war against terrorism II

27 August 2003 10:15 AM SGT (link)

Eugene has responded.

The problem really is that the hawks can't point to a single major aim without major re-justification. They can't say "oh we did it for humanitarian reasons" or " we did it to root out terrorism" or "we did it to eliminate a blood-thirsty dictator with WMD". Inevitably, when questioned about humanitarian intervention, they would justify that SH is a dictator and so were his sons, and his treatment of political prisoners, and using chemical weapons on the Kurds and what not. But that is not the reason for war as shown by my previous post. I think LzyData agrees somewhat since he claims later that this is but one of the aims. But then goes on to point to this aim and that aim, and then says that that is not the aim either. So is there a goal or not?

I supposedly went on from one aim to another, demolishing each of them, but that was because they were framed in a sceptical way. For instance, the reasons for humanitarian intervention:

Humanitarian intervention
This is unlikely for several reasons.
A) wide spread human rights violations throughout the world.
Iraq is not the ONLY country with human rights violations. Iran, Myanmar, China all have lacklustre human rights records. Some may even argue that Singapore has a poor one too. haha. But that's trivial, since we definitely have a better sheet.

B) Timing and consistency
the timimg of the war shows that it is not the humanitarian reasons. If it was, why now, not before. Of course, there would be people who beg to differ. If not now, when, they ask. But how come this question wasn't asked earlier during the Gulf War? Why is Iraq special?

C) rights or oil rights
Has US ever intervened in the Middle East for humanitarian reasons?

- LzyData, Iraq & the war against terrorism II

Now it's fine to be sceptical, even cynical, but I was trying to show in my last post that the such scepticism & cynicism is based on erroneous assumptions & shaky foundations. So even though I will agree that the Iraq war was not fought for humanitarian reasons, as, for instance, the "Black Hawk Down" mission in Somalia where the US didn't really have any interest in standing up to the warlord Aideed, I must point out that the foundation of peacenik cynicism & suspicion is problematic. Of course, that isn't equivalent to making a case for the reasons - I'll come to that later.

Before Gulf War II, some had argued for military intervention to topple Saddam, sometimes because they said the sanctions were not sustainable, sometimes because they thought the US owed the southern Shiites something after calling on them to resist Saddam in 1991 & then leaving them to the mercy of Saddam's Republican Guard. But let's face it: there was no political will, or consensus, for war: in 1998 when Saddam kicked out the inspectors (Clinton was also embroiled in the impeachment trials at the time), or January 2001 when Bush took power, or in the aftermath of 9/11 when the priority was al-Qaeda. Even if it had been more right, with the benefit of hindsight, to force Saddam back to agreeing with inspections in 1998, it wasn't politically realistic then. That's your timing for you =)

So we can see that the case for humanitarian intervention was always there, but it took 9/11 & the global war on terrorism, & specifically in the Middle East, for the White House to clamp down on Saddam. That's why the US or other countries don't willy-nilly demand to intervene in African states torn apart by civil strife, or in Myanmar etc. States have no obligation to intervene in humanitarian crises if there's no compelling national interest, & those who think they should anyway are indeed being unrealistic.

Is terrorism the aim? Then what in the world is happening in Israel? So, the argument goes that diplomacy doesn't work in Iraq, the inspectors got kicked out, they say. But then is diplomacy working in Israel? Has it worked for the past few decades?

That's a laugh-out-loud point. Eugene conflates the problems of suicide terrorism in Israel with WMD non-compliance in Iraq. Um, yes, diplomacy has been going on between Israel & the Palestinian Authority for more than a decade, I believe, but the people throwing the spanners in the works are Palestinian suicide terrorists, supported by Hamas & Islamic Jihad (& before 2003, to a small extent, Saddam), who do not recognise the legitimacy of the state of Israel, & are more interested in war than peace. On the other side there are the Israeli hawks who do not believe their government should give any leeway to diplomacy, & support incursions & occupation of Palestinian areas. Of course the answer has to come from somewhere in the middle, because the aims of both extremes are unpalatable & unacceptable. In particular, just hunting down Palestinian terrorists without any political compromise is untenable, & indeed encourages more terrorism. That's why diplomacy has to continue - to a certain extent they are banging against the wall, but the other options are worse.

But why can't we make comparisons? If we don't make comparisons, how do we know whether our policy is consistent. If the policy is inconsistent, then how do we know that our policy is principle-based (principle based , not in the moral sense, but in terms of are we heading in the right direction based on our assumptions about how the world works)

We make comparisons & analogies all the time, yes, but there's also the danger of using an inappropriate analogy, or over-simplication & reductionism. There are no blatant inconsistencies between, say, war in Iraq & diplomacy in North Korea. One only thinks so if one applies cookie-cutter rules & equates all rogue states & the environment they're in. It's right that there are principles behind foreign policy, such as the oft-criticised neo-conservative one, but it doesn't mean we're beholden to them. Perhaps this unarticulated but assumed policy here is: diplomacy, negotiation, some kind of compromise, & if all else fails, military conflict.

I may have principles towards, say, obeying the law. But they don't work across-the-board, or for all situations (like, say, if the Euthyphro case happened to me). We must be flexible in the face of different of changing circumstances. If we are usually opposed to war, as I am, we must also see what are the conditions in which it might have to be done.

Taking the statesman perspective in IR, the consistency issue seem to disappear. It's not Bush's fault. Maybe not but that seems to purport that the statesmen's decisions differ from the public substantially. In other words, Lzydata is perhaps suggesting that the people actually wanted to invade Iraq BEFORE 9-11.

Some people, yes. Perhaps Iraqi opposition groups were cognisant of the potential for casualties, but they would fall behind such a cause because the could see no other way to drive Saddam & his sons out. But of course the White House could not support such a policy without good reasons, such as the failed disarmament effort & the fight against terrorism. Most people couldn't care less because the US & UK military were doing a fine job patrolling the no-fly zones, & the sanctions were crippling Saddam's military strength. That does not imply that the White House had some sinister scheme to hoodwink the people into the war though.

I think Lzydata does not get the point. I'm not claiming that all humanitarian intervention is a guise. Hell, humanitarian intervention is a relatively new concept, at least in practice and has to start somewhere. The point is, has any intervention in ME been predicated on humanitarian grounds? Perhaps you're thinking of Kuwait, which should answer itself. I'm not detracting the benefits of intervention. I did recognise that, but
"An additional point: if the war against Iraq was launched with reasons other than humanitarian ones, but they resulted in humanitarian gains, then how right is it to question it on humanitarian grounds?" --lzydata
has been adequately answered on my final point that reasons DO matter so I shall not repeat.

The matter of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was a case straight out of the book of the UN Charter - aggression against another state - & that's why the coalition was formed & sent there to get Saddam out. "Has US ever intervened in the Middle East for humanitarian reasons?" - that is not claiming that humanitarian intervention was a guise? I believe that was precisely what Eugene was trying to imply! So, my response to this was perhaps no, the US has not intervened for humanitarian matters before, but that does not preclude it from doing so at any time, especially if it concurs with other policy objectives. Consider the fallacious peacenik claim: they haven't, so if they do now, it must be for unsavoury motives like oil.

To be continued...

A Mathematician's Apology

27 August 2003 1:06 AM SGT (link)

A Mathematician's Apology is not so much an apology as a small contribution by G. H. Hardy (1877-1947), written when he had passed his peak, to explaining to non-mathematicians why he does mathematics, & what mathematics is to him. This is where possibly his most famous quote, "there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics," & his most famous anecdote, of Ramanujan & the taxi licence plate number, come from.

This Canto edition also has a foreword by C. P. Snow, famous for the idea of the "two cultures", & Hardy's former student. Snow gives us some basic biographical information about Hardy, & helps flash out what kind of a person he was. The blurb says that: "when it was first published, Graham Greene hailed it alongside Henry James's notebooks as 'the best account of what it was like to be a creative artist'." Here Snow expounds on the tragedy:

...A Mathematician's Apology is, if read with the textual attention it deserves, a book of haunting sadness. Yes, it is witty and sharp with intellectual high spirits: yes, the crystalline clarity and candour are still there: yes, it is the testament of a creative artist. But it is also, in an understated stoical fashion, a passionate lament for creative powers that used to be and that will never come again. I know nothing like it in the language: partly because most people with the literary gift to express such a lament don't come to feel it: it is very rare for a writer to realise, with the finality of truth, that he is absolutely finished.

- C. P. Snow, foreword to A Mathematician's Apology, pages 50-51

This, however, is my favourite part of A Mathematician's Apology. It is something I very much identify with:

...It is sometimes suggested, by lawyers or politicians or business men, that an academic career is one sought mainly by cautious and unambitious persons who care primarily for comfort and security. The reproach is quite misplaced. A don surrenders something, and in particular the chance of making large sums of money - it is very hard for a professor to make £2000 a year; and security of tenure is naturally one of the considerations which make this particular surrender easy. That is not why Housman would have refused to be Lord Simon or Lord Beaverbrook. He would have rejected their careers because of his ambition, because he would have scorned to be a man to be forgotten in twenty years.

Yet how painful it is to feel that, with all those advantages, one may fail. I can remember Bertrand Russell telling me of a horrible dream. He was in the top floor of the University Library, about A. D. 2100. A library assistant was going round the shelves carrying an enormous bucket, taking down book after book, glancing at them, restoring them to the shelves or dumping them into the bucket. At last he came to three large volumes which Russell could recognize as the last surviving copy of Principia mathematica. He took down one of the volumes, turned over a few pages, seemed puzzled for a moment by the curious symbolism, closed the volume, balanced it in his hand and hesitated...

- G. H. Hardy, A Mathematician's Apology, chapter 9, pages 82-83

For some context, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was a prolific & famous philosopher & mathematician, & his Principia mathematica, written with Alfred North Whitehead, was an attempt at deriving mathematics from formal logic, incomplete but profound all the same. (It's not to be confused with Isaac Newton's Principia mathematica, which is actually a shortening of Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica, mathematical principles of natural philosophy (?), which describes his theories of gravitation.) The 3-volume set might even be this one at Amazon. As can be imagined, Russell's book is practically incomprehensible to those without some schooling in mathematics & formal logic, but I believe he regarded it as the most important part of his legacy.

Iraq & the war against terrorism

26 August 2003 7:41 PM SGT (link)

Eugene has posted a detailed argument analysing the aims of war against Iraq & how the war remains controversial today. He had been making points against my earlier posts, Fighting yesterday's battles and North Korea, & in the tag-board I remarked that his points were akin to the Saddam Fedayeen's sporadic strikes & killings, causing damage & death here & there but not harming the main case significantly. That was unfair, I admit, because his arguments were made through a constraining medium; I found the same problem applied to me when I tried to respond to his post! & it's worse for me, because I'm a much more verbose person than Eugene. So, I will respond in detail here instead. (I've also done some formatting to spruce it up - I trust Eugene doesn't mind.)

what are the aims of war/invasion
My conjecture, since it's impossible to state USA's position given that there are people who oppose the war there too and some who acquiesce due to different reasons, is three-fold. First and the least likely is humanitarian intervention. Second is the ridding of the "axis of evil", or rooting out terrorism. Third, removing a rogue state with WMD capabilities. These 3 aims, have different assumptions and imply a need for different approaches.

Humanitarian intervention
This is unlikely for several reasons.
A) wide spread human rights violations throughout the world.
Iraq is not the ONLY country with human rights violations. Iran, Myanmar, China all have lacklustre human rights records. Some may even argue that Singapore has a poor one too. haha. But that's trivial, since we definitely have a better sheet.

B) Timing and consistency
the timimg of the war shows that it is not the humanitarian reasons. If it was, why now, not before. Of course, there would be people who beg to differ. If not now, when, they ask. But how come this question wasn't asked earlier during the Gulf War? Why is Iraq special?

C) rights or oil rights
Has US ever intervened in the Middle East for humanitarian reasons?

NOTE : That is not to negate the humanitarian cause as a good end. Given that Baghdad has fallen, the US should reconstitute a proper government that will see to the end of human rights violations and political freedom.

Question: Does a totalitarian government equate to lack of support? not necessarily. Cuba for one.

I'll respond to the argument for invading Iraq & deposing Saddam for humanitarian reasons: he's a tyrant & his people need to be liberated. I know President Bush & others in the administration regularly drummed in the points about how evil Saddam was & that his removal would liberate the Iraqi people. I also know people who were positively put off by these comments - regardless of whether or not they cared for the liberation of the Iraqi people from a maniacal tyrant. I contend that these were aimed not so much at people who didn't know about Saddam's evil - or couldn't care - but at the proverbial Arab street & Arab media, who were stepping on each other in the rush to portray Saddam as a great leader standing up to the Americans.

The thing was, if an alien civilisation or cartoon superhero materialised & said "Saddam is an evil tyrant. I'm going to get rid of him & liberate the Iraqi people", people will, after they recover from the shock (of seeing the alien/superhero), throw their support behind the cause. Or at least they wouldn't feel as strongly against it as they do now. People were sceptical of the Bush administration's motives, rather than disapproving of the cause. Liberation was good, but not by the US military with a commander-in-chief called George W. Bush. Eugene has three reasons why, & I contend that they are all spurious &/or misguided.

Attack all, or attack none?: The argument that because there's a lot of evil around the world, a lot of tyrants that oppress their people, not only Saddam & his sons, so why Iraq? is as I've said:

...[T]he US & UK did not go to war with Saddam for humanitarian reasons. They were good reasons, but not sufficient ones. Here the liberals would no doubt point to other examples of corrupt tyrannic despots around the world & say "why not here?", & then conclude the US & UK were in Iraq because of oil. What fantastic leaps of logic! I have deferred to Tony Blair's answer : "...Yes, let's get rid of them all. I don't because I can't, but when you can, you should." Just because you can't get rid of all doesn't mean you can't get rid of one, considering that that one was one of the prime targets.

- lzyData, Fighting yesterday's battles

Perhaps there is no woolly-headed cuckoo out there who really believes we should treat all the tyrants & despots "fairly" & not "single out" Saddam. There were some who, rather, asked "should we be putting Iraq in our cross hairs rather than concentrate on hunting down al-Qaeda?" So for them, it was a matter of resource misallocation. It's a valid concern: the US military, along with the State Department & CIA, can only handle so much at a time. But that's from the point of the US, which Eugene's not too concerned with here.

For the last time already, the attack on Saddam doesn't give any support to the case that we should act militarily to stop countries that do not treat their citizens too well. What's more, it's never a situation of "attack all or attack none". One needs to look at each situation on a case-by-case basis. There is an appeal in the simplistic logic of "since everyone's doing it, why single out Iraq?", but implicitly, that means that in order to avoid being a hypocrite, one must address all the problems, or none at all. That's the only way to answer this objection satisfactorily. Why do we make that absurd inference? Because we're applying this rule-of-thumb in a vacuum, without considering the different situations in which intervention may be necessary, & what form it takes. We also assume the US military has unlimited resources, which it doesn't.

Of late, the US has sent a token deployment of Marines to Liberia to assist in peacekeeping operations, striking a balance between the request by the UN, America's ties to Liberia, & the lack of strategic interests in that part of the world. The US has criticised the Myanmar junta severely for locking up Aung San Suu Kyi, but has largely left it to the UN & Asean to talk with the junta to get her freed ASAP, again because it has little strategic interests in Myanmar (heck, hardly anyone has, unfortunately). The US, along with regional powers, is now in multilateral talks with North Korea to resolve their "grievances", but it is poised for war if necessary. Any overreaction to any of these problems risks overspending material & diplomatic capital, & perhaps making things worse. Any underreaction would threaten US interests later.

Timing & consistency: If the Bush administration is being hypocritical & suspect in bringing up the Iraq issue now, rather than, say, in 1991, during or after Gulf War I, or in 1998, when Saddam kicked out the inspectors & Clinton responded with token bombings, I will have to say that we are expecting too much of the Bush administration, since, obviously, they weren't in power then! This is like criticising the Nixon government of the '70s for not stopping the heightened Vietnam War involvement in the '60s. The President may command the most powerful military on Earth, but even he can't go back in time to right past wrongs. What he can do is right the past wrongs now.

If instead we want to ask why the Bush administration did not try to get the Iraq problem resolved in 2001, when they took power, that's more valid. Why did Bush only name Iraq as a member of the "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union speech? Why did the gears of war & diplomacy move only towards the end of 2002? In one word: 9/11. If that hadn't happened, if al-Qaeda had perhaps done only one or two small-scale attacks overseas, & Saddam did not make any big splashes militarily, it's conceivable that the Bush administration may have just followed the status quo: sanctions, the oil-for-food programme, patrolling the north & south no-fly zones, tacit approval to overseas Iraqi opposition groups. (I once read a blogger, I forgot who, caution Bush fans who heartily support the Iraq war that had 9/11 not happened, the administration would've done nothing about Iraq.)

Rights or oil rights?: Well until 1993 the US had never intervened in Africa before, but they did, to assist UN food shipments to Somalis. Just because you hadn't done something before doesn't prevent you from ever doing it, humanitarian acts included. I think this persisting notion that there was some kind of conspiracy underfoot, clothed in the guise of human rights - & like all conspiracy theories, with nary a shred of evidence to offer - stems from the deep-seated aversion people have for Bush. (I talked about this in "Fighting yesterday's battles" too.) Also, this is related to the vastly different climate in the Middle East post-9/11. More on that later.

An additional point: if the war against Iraq was launched with reasons other than humanitarian ones, but they resulted in humanitarian gains, then how right is it to question it on humanitarian grounds? Before the Iraq war, people were complaining that the sanctions were killing children because of the restrictions on medical supplies (& Saddam gleefully played this up to the Western media). Now the sanctions have been lifted, & eventually permanently, when the threat of WMD has been verified to be gone. How would peaceniks aim to achieve the equivalent humanitarian policy of saving the children while also bearing in mind that sanctions are there for a reason? Exercise: show that there's another course of action that could significantly improve the lives of Iraqis as much as removing Saddam forcibly has, & will. The Nobel Peace Prize for the correct answer.

Ridding the axis of evil/ rooting out terrorism
I think, first we have to agree that terrorism is BAD. I think no rational person has serious qualms about terrorism being an awful tool to get what one wants. However, one has to ask, is Iraq a sponsor of terrorism. To be honest, I don't know. From what I gather, probably not. That is not to say that there are NO terrorists there but come on, there are terrorist here in Singapore too. Does that mean we're a hotbed of terrorism?

What is meant by a hotbed of terrorism must necessarily entail the willingness of the Baathist regime to allow terrorist set up camps and operations there, NOT terrorist activities (ie bombing their school buses). This is obvious because I don't think the Baathist regime, for all it's malice, would like to have their own buildings explode. So the question really is, are there terrorist camps in Iraq? This is very important in the formulation of whether Iraq is a terrorist state.

OK I think we should know that there were indeed terrorist camps in northern Iraq housing the Ansar al-Islam, whose primary enemy was the Kurds, & received support from al-Qaeda. It's not clear whether Saddam Hussein supported this group, & if so to what extent, but I suppose he wasn't too unhappy with the presence of this radical faction to harass & attack his Kurdish foes. (That's an answer to Eugene's doubt about Saddam harbouring terrorists.) In Gulf War II, the Ansar al-Islam camps seemed to be just one of the items on the "shopping list" of US Special Forces & Kurdish forces in the north, & they were not mentioned pre-war as being the targets. Proof has also been unearthed that Saddam's government did have ties with al-Qaeda representatives; information on this was sketchy before the war.

Terrorist camps bombed, & a group supported by al-Qaeda largely eliminated? It seems nobody heard, or cares. Peaceniks are naturally unhappy that the Bush administration is misleading the public by suggesting that Saddam was somehow linked to 9/11 & al-Qaeda, but they should also realise that Saddam's hands weren't exactly clean. Perhaps bin Laden would not be inclined to support a tyrant who uses Islam for his own ends, like Saddam, but it doesn't mean they couldn't work together in the future. That is the thing keeping US government officials sleepless at night: al-Qaeda deploying Iraqi WMDs.

Back to the question of "terrorist states": people like Sen. Bob Graham, one of the Democratic presidential candidates, feels groups like Hamas & Hezbollah should be attacked first, & Iraq addressed later (see Slate's The Worldview of Bob Graham). That would entail striking states that sponsor these groups, who have activities only with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - Syria, Lebanon & Iran. Charities based in Saudi Arabia have also had a big role to play in financing & supporting the jihad, & these links may go up very high (U.S. discusses releasing Saudi names in 9/11 report). These are not merely states who have the misfortune of having terrorists in their midst, like Singapore. How can one fail to see the difference?

Finally, WMD. Before the war, there was a lot of allegations, particularly on the WMD front because, as mentioned, the humanitarian reasons are weak and hypocritical AND the allegations of terrorist sponsorship was filmsy. So at the beginning, a lot of emphasis was put on the WMD capabilities and the removal of UN inspectors.
Now that WMD isn't present, the justifications of war seem rather inadequate. I think the public feel even more cheated because this was so highly emphasised.

Cheated only if one regards this as a spectator sport. The lack of WMDs after a long search is in fact alternately worrying & perplexing: could they have been smuggled into other states for use later, like Syria? Or even carried off by "freelance" terrorists? Why did Saddam behave as if he did have something to hide - why did he not give a full accounting of the WMDs that the UN inspectors have been demanding since the end of the first Gulf War? (the UN inspectors made headway with the last inspections, but not completely.) Those who accuse the Bush & Blair administrations of lying should note that the intelligence was good but not overwhelming - they didn't make things up from thin air, but perhaps they did spice it up. Peaceniks are content to say "nah nah, you were wrong" without concerning themselves about why the intelligence was wrong, even to the extent that Saddam was willing to stake his regime on imaginary WMDs. It doesn't make sense, & we have to find out why.

Perhaps I'm not giving the peaceniks enough credit. After all, one of their main arguments was that extended inspections would work, that the inspectors could account for all the WMDs eventually, & hence there would not be a need for war, or even for sanctions. No WMDs? Gee, we didn't even need inspections after all! Too easy, people. Most wanted more inspections, not no inspections, because most people thought there were WMDs to be found. That was the conventional knowledge, that was the conclusion of the last UN inspection team, & that was how Saddam behaved in stonewalling the inspectors in 2002 until he came under enormous pressure.

If Saddam had no WMDs, why did he not just say so? get the problem resolved sooner? He let himself get overthrown for it, mind you! I'm thinking that, assuming he knew he didn't have WMDs, he still wanted the UN sanctions, because (1) they solidified his power over the Iraqi people, & (2) he didn't want inspectors snooping around & confiscating things all the same, because he had long-term plans of reviving WMD programmes. He miscalculated, & thought that the French & Russian political machinations at the Security Council, & global protests, would be enough to stave off an attack. There's also a theory floating around that Saddam may have been misled by his underlings & commanders that he had WMD, but actually any WMD they possessed had been destroyed under the watchful eyes of the UN, & they had problems getting the materials for making more.

It must also be considered that the WMDs do exist, but could have either been destroyed, or hidden very well, perhaps buried. It will take time to find out. Peaceniks do not care to give explanations of Saddam's behaviour given that he had no WMDs. They would sooner just wave the question away & get Blair to resign in a storm of controversy. It betrays their lack of interest in problems of national security like the WMDs & their anti-Bush commitment.

Comparing Iraq with North Korea.
What many people would like to know is why Iraq and not North Korea. Iraq has been relatively quiet since their defeat. North Korea on the other hands love shooting missles, starting and stopping their nuclear programme. Certainly, North Korea is the more enigmatic of the two, and possibly more dangerous given that he is neither willing to open up to the world nor care very much about being the target of military retaliations. In fact, it's likely that North Korea is more dangerous because it possibly has a better arsenal and, well, doesn't really give a damn about the probabilities of losing. It seems that they are willing to go down with the enemy.
My conjecture is that, Iraq was picked not because there were more reasons to eliminate Saddam Hussein,ie the reasons being human rights violations, terrorism ad infinitum, but rather because Iraq is easier to deal with. This is further proven by the *current* non existence of WMD.
So in sum, the invasion isn't moral per se but rather an exercise of realism. Is there anything wrong with that? Probably not. Just that it's a big bully small situation, and you're left wondering, what did the small guy did wrong.

Eugene is pretty unconvincing in his assertion that he's OK with the big-bully explanation of the Iraq war, or at least ambivalent. The silent implication here is again that North Korea is the bigger threat, so there's something amiss in attacking Iraq. I've already refuted that; see my North Korea post for why North Korea can & should be handled differently.

North Korea does have a larger army, better weapons, ballistic missiles & possibly nuclear weapons - it's unquestionably militarily stronger than Iraq. North Korea also has more cards up its sleeve in the event of a reckless invasion or attack: its ability to strike South Korea & inflict many casualties; ballistic missiles launched towards Japan or the US, etc. Can we hence infer that the US thought "Iraq [was] easier to deal with, [so we'll attack Iraq]"? Saddam was indeed the "smaller" underdog, but that doesn't confer on him any measure of righteousness. He too is merely a tyrant looking out for his own interests. If we are to regret that Saddam didn't have more people to threaten, or missiles to launch, I think that is tragically misguided. We should be happy he didn't, & more people didn't have to die to see him deposed. Between Saddam, a man with a track record of oppressing his citizens & attacking his neighbours, & the avowed US/UK intention to liberate Iraqis & "impose" a stable, democratic regime, I'll take the latter any day.

My goodness, this response has gone on for far too long! I'll address the last part tomorrow.

MIT Everyware

26 August 2003 6:42 PM SGT (link)

MIT Everyware (Wired) lets us meet some of the "global geeks" that are using the freely-available notes, handouts, quizzes & even video lectures at MIT's OpenCourseWare to get an MIT education. Already, with just 50 sample courses available, it has become a hit.

I have to admit I had forgotten about this resource until seeing this article. I will dutifully read up 18.013A: Calculus with Applications, because I'm taking a similar module this semester. Surprisingly (to me), the most popular class (by hits) is 24.00: Problems of Philosophy.

"The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences"

25 August 2003 10:35 PM SGT (link)

This classic 1960 paper is one of my Mathematical Ideas readings, on the philosophy of mathematics, & in Wigner's paper, its success in physical theories:

...The first point is that the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it. Second, it is just this uncanny usefulness of mathematical concepts that raises the question of the uniqueness of our physical theories. In order to establish the first point, that mathematics plays an unreasonably important role in physics, it will be useful to say a few words on the question, "What is mathematics?", then, "What is physics?", then, how mathematics enters physical theories, and last, why the success of mathematics in its role in physics appears so baffling. Much less will be said on the second point: the uniqueness of the theories of physics. A proper answer to this question would require elaborate experimental and theoretical work which has not been undertaken to date.

- Dr. Eugene Wigner, "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences"

For some context, Dr. Wigner was a Hungarian-born theoretical physicist who emigrated to the US with the advent of World War II. He was awarded the 1963 Nobel Physics Prize "for his contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus and the elementary particles, particularly through the discovery and application of fundamental symmetry principles". So, being who he is, he's writing this from the point of view of the physicist, even mathematical physicist, rather than the mathematician or philospher.

After reading the paper twice, I got the feeling that he had given a good outline of what's needed to answer the question of the "unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" especially when applied to physics, the more modern the more so. Galileo could be said to be the first to advocate the study of natural philosophy, knowledge of the natural world, through experiments & mathematical interpretations, & this movement culminated in Newton's universal laws of gravitation, which he developed hand in hand with calculus as the mathematical foundation. Since then physicists have truly not looked back - Newton's theory was astonishingly successful, & it wasn't until Einstein's theories of relativity that they were corrected (but only for high speeds & masses/energies: Newton's laws still work perfectly well in our normal environment).

Unfortunately, having started with a good outline, I feel Wigner doesn't manage to do more than mention the common arguments made by mathematicians, physicists & philosophers of mathematics regarding the issues, & making comments here & there. Not that we were expecting him to hand us The Answer on a platter, but I daresay we would expect more.

For instance, under "Is the Success of Physical Theories Truly Surprising?", he describes the studies of planetary motion (Newton's laws), quantum mechanics, & the spectra of heavier atoms as examples of how we [the physicists] "'got something out' of the equations that we did not put in". That is a very important point towards the claim that mathematics is not merely the "only language" physicists can "speak" i.e. describe phenomena & postulate theories with, but the "correct language." He's showing the equivalent of a glove snugly fitting one's hand, but still not offering anything as to why it should be so. By the end he does the equivalent of shrugging his shoulders. The question has been too much for him, & I suspect for almost all of us.

Intelligences & their pictures

...In order to obtain an indication as to which alternative to expect ultimately, we can pretend to be a little more ignorant than we are and place ourselves at a lower level of knowledge than we actually possess. If we can find a fusion of our theories on this lower level of intelligence, we can confidently expect that we will find a fusion of our theories also at our real level of intelligence. On the other hand, if we would arrive at mutually contradictory theories at a somewhat lower level of knowledge, the possibility of the permanence of conflicting theories cannot be excluded for ourselves either. The level of knowledge and ingenuity is a continuous variable and it is unlikely that a relatively small variation of this continuous variable changes the attainable picture of the world from inconsistent to consistent.10 Considered from this point of view, the fact that some of the theories which we know to be false give such amazingly accurate results is an adverse factor. Had we somewhat less knowledge, the group of phenomena which these "false" theories explain would appear to us to be large enough to "prove" these theories. However, these theories are considered to be "false" by us just for the reason that they are, in ultimate analysis, incompatible with more encompassing pictures and, if sufficiently many such false theories are discovered, they are bound to prove also to be in conflict with each other. Similarly, it is possible that the theories, which we consider to be "proved" by a number of numerical agreements which appears to be large enough for us, are false because they are in conflict with a possible more encompassing theory which is beyond our means of discovery. If this were true, we would have to expect conflicts between our theories as soon as their number grows beyond a certain point and as soon as they cover a sufficiently large number of groups of phenomena. In contrast to the article of faith of the theoretical physicist mentioned before, this is the nightmare of the theorist.

10: This passage was written after a great deal of hesitation. The writer is convinced that it is useful, in epistemological discussions, to abandon the idealization that the level of human intelligence has a singular position on an absolute scale. In some cases it may even be useful to consider the attainment which is possible at the level of the intelligence of some other species. However, the writer also realizes that his thinking along the lines indicated in the text was too brief and not subject to sufficient critical appraisal to be reliable.

- Dr. Eugene Wigner, "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences", "The Uniqueness of the Theories of Physics", para. 4

Curiously, I had not thought much about this paragraph until today's tutorial, which was a pretty free-wheeling discussion on what we had gotten out of this reading & others. It suddenly came to me: I understood what Wigner was getting at, & it was pretty profound. Perhaps I had subconsciously understood this when prompted by some other comments on other issues related to the philosophy of mathematics that we're dealing with.

The formalist school of the philosophy of mathematics emphasises the fact that mathematics is a product of human beings, mathematicians, & not something "out there" to be discovered as the Platonists claim. According to this view, mathematics is a well-formed "game", made of axioms, definitions, theorems & proofs of these theorems, & is strictly divorced from reality, physical or otherwise. Any time we try to make connections, like use maths in physics theories, then it becomes physics, & is no longer maths.

The biggest problem formalism has to contend with is indeed the "unreasonable effectiveness" of mathematics in explaining physical phenomena, how if mathematics is a product of human cognition & thought processes, theories like Maxwell's equations for electromagnetism, Newton's laws of gravitation & quantum theory can employ mathematics to achieve extremely precise results, sometimes beyond what the theorist him/herself expected. (That is why I quipped that in these situations, "the equation is smarter than the person who wrote it!")

Here lies the genius of Wigner's suggestion that I excerpted above. As Prof. Pang adeptly pointed out, Wigner's very title betrays a sympathy to the formalist cause, if not total commitment. Why would a Platonist question the effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences? - they're all parts of reality. (But he may try to develop the thesis further, though.) Wigner "rescues" formalism from this enigma by pointing out that our physical theories & our mathematical theories are closely tied to our species' "level of intelligence".

For now I think we should set aside the previous talk of the "correct language." Wigner says that at any point of development of physics, whether our theories are compatible & coherent (as in the time of Newton) or not completely so (today's relativity & quantum theory), is strictly a matter of the here & now. Whether humans or aliens develop more advanced & all-encompassing physical theories, or whether we are doomed to incoherency, is an open question (simply because if we knew we would have got to those theories by now). Our physical picture of the universe is like a light bulb in a dark room that steadily illuminates more of its surroundings as its filament heats up.

Accordingly, Wigner asks us to pretend we are a "little more ignorant" than we are now, perhaps in the century or so after Newton when the influence of his theories, & the resulting determinism, was at its highest. At that time the phenomena that would lead to severe difficulties with Newton's laws of gravitation had not been conceived & demonstrated (yet), & the in-built assumptions of Newton's laws were unquestioned because there was no reason to question them (yet). A non-human, "superior", intelligence could possess a mathematics & a physics that is "larger", whose light illuminates a greater area (in practice, explains more with less). Newton's laws have not been refuted for "everyday" speeds & masses - they are an excellent approximation of Einstein's laws of relativity. The physics is merely less true than what it was a few centuries ago (notice that there is no strict dichotomy - true/false - here) - a smaller picture. Einstein & others were the "superior intelligence(s)", & there will be many more of such character(s), human or not.

The truly intriguing thing about this "expanding picture" theory is how it relates to our mathematics, if it even makes sense to call it "ours" (humanity's). At any point in the development of physics, mathematics is its "language", how it describes, explains & predicts phenomena in the real world. Of course, not all mathematics is applicable to physical theories, but for those that are, hitch a ride on that ever-expanding, ever-mutable picture of reality. It's Kantian: not only do we organise our experiences of the world through our senses in certain idiosyncratic, human, ways - we may speak a language of abstract relations that is critically limited: built into who we are. The common example is how the world appears red when you put on spectacles covered with red cellophane. One of Kant's examples is an answer to Hume's devastating scepticism about cause & effect & the validity of induction: he essentially says that perhaps humans not only tend to, but cannot help but picture events in cause-&-effect relations.

In a way, this is an extremely defeatist position. It assumes that humans carry with them inherent limitations in not only senses & perception, & their mental apparatus, & furthermore (thanks to Wigner) their physics & mathematics. It may remind one of the naysayers that said Man would never be able to build flying machines, or land on the moon, or things like that. However, those were technological obstacles, not epistemological ones - boundaries of our knowledge.

It can be said, more optimistically, that Wigner also brings the dueling schools of Platonism & formalism together. Essentially Platonists believe there is mathematics, & a mathematical reality, without mathematicians, & formalists don't. A Platonist views the mathematician's efforts as incremental steps to discovering reality - Truth with a capital "T". A formalist, in Wigner's conception, may view it as incremental steps to inventing a better truth - small "t" - as a vanguard of knowledge-seeking humanity. The struggle is in (mono-/poly-/pan-)theistic terms for Platonists, humanistic for formalists, but ultimately they need not be in conflict. No mathematician can be a hard-nosed formalist that believes he's playing a sophisticated version of chess. This formulation of formalism, I feel, is a step to understanding why.

My heartfelt Platonism was shaken today, but it wasn't shattered. (The matter of mathematics that is not as yet applied to physical theories has not been addressed - aspects of T/truth uncovered in advance? - both Platonists & formalists can agree.) In fact, the subject of the philosophy of mathematics becomes even more fascinating & inspiring.

Japanese drama databases & more

25 August 2003 9:38 PM SGT (link)

Yesterday I added three links to Japanese drama databases.

As said, The Japanese Drama Database is the classic, but it's really showing its age. You can only do a general search, & dramas are just arranged by title - that means no way to see, for instance, an actor's filmography. The reviews of new dramas are also patchy - but when they are there, they're usually helpful in understanding what the drama is about, & also whether you'll probably be interested.

JDorama.com has a hip & cool interface, & you can indeed search by drama or artiste or other fields if they're available. On the main page, there's also a listing of dramas by the season they were shown in Japan (the only other site I've seen do this is a Chinese one that stopped getting updated in 2001). On each drama page, there are scans of the DVD & VCD box covers (sent in by members), with pretty comprehensive cast lists, links to other sites, lyrics to theme songs (& even ring tones!), & usually a lot of user feedback. Now this is IMDB standard - but no links to film critics' reviews, or quotes though. My quibble with it is that the forums & user ratings of dramas are mostly not very helpful - I actually saw a comment "this drama has Actor X & Actress Y in it, so rating it wasn't difficult" - & sometimes they're too helpful, with spoilers galore. But it's the best all-purpose database you can find, I believe.

Another site worth using is 日本偶像劇場, literally Japanese Idols Theatre. The drama database is at the 劇料庫, "Drama Database" (?). It's in Taiwanese Traditional Chinese so non-Chinese readers can't really use it, I guess. Covers much the same ground as JDorama.com except that, well, it's in Chinese, & the user comments are separated from the drama listings, so I haven't checked them out yet. Things it has that JDorama.com doesn't: TV ratings for most of the episodes of dramas (especially the newer ones) & links to Taiwanese news articles about dramas & stars.

Six degrees of separation

Quick, connect Imai Tsubasa to Kaneshiro Takeshi!

You may be totally befuddled at what I'm talking about. What I mean is how one can use drama casts to link two members of the Japanese acting community. In this case: Imai Tsubasa acted in Summer Snow with Domoto Tsuyoshi, who acted in To Heart with Fukada Kyoko, who acted in Kamisama, mou sukoshi dake (God, Please Give Me More Time) with... Kaneshiro Takeshi. Of course, anyone who can link them up through less than 3 dramas would have beaten my sample answer - I don't think there's a better one.

Six degrees of separation refers to a mathematical study done by some researchers who found that on average two people in the world are connected to each other by just six intermediaries. It's been developed into the Oracle of Bacon, where you can challenge the database to find an obscure actor/actress with the highest "Kevin Bacon number", or the most number of movies that's required to link the fellow with Kevin Bacon. The funny thing is Kevin Bacon's not even the best centre. Now you have a new appreciation of the guy; his most memorable roles to me are all psychopaths, like in Hollow Man.

The Japanese drama version is a wonderful game to play with people who have watched their fair share of Japanese dramas: after a while, even the actors who are usually relegated to the supporting cast become recognisable. For instance, I'm a fan of Abe Hiroshi's comic acting in Hero & Dekichatta Kekkon (Shotgun Marriage) - he's the tall thin guy with big eyes.

I also use these degrees of separation in practice on the Taiwanese site - because I don't have software to type Chinese, I thread my way through dramas & actors/actresses to get to the dramas or scriptwriters I'm interested in. Call me lazy: I haven't tried to map out the links I know, or find the best centre through some algorithm. Kimura Takuya is my convenient centre of choice: it may even be the best, because he's so popular & good in acting that everyone likes to, or would like to, work with him.

Digression: another weird game suggestion for Japanese drama freaks. In the past, I was so familiar with the drama Long Vacation, having watched it a few times, that one could play the soundtrack & remember in which scene that particular piece of music was used (I mean the pieces that aren't used very often, of course). Only for people with too much time on their hands.

Upcoming dramas on Channel 8?

Recently Channel 8 started showing the Fuji Japanese drama Home & Away, which I've been writing about every week because there's always something interesting about the show to talk about. Yesterday they also started Golden Bowl (11pm), about bowling, starring Kaneshiro Takeshi & Kuroki Hitomi (she is another good example of the increasingly-familiar supporting-cast actress). But after seeing that Channel 8 was repeating a 2-year old show, Dekichatta Kekkon, I thought getting MediaCorp to screen new Japanese dramas on TV would continue to be a lost cause.

Here's the kick: in last week's issue of I周刊, I-Weekly, there was a story saying that besides Golden Bowl, Channel 8 will be showing no less than 8 new Japanese dramas. Unfortunately, the story neglected to mention when, & besides, an article in the magazine is hardly a firm guarantee. & it's a crazy proposition, considering that right now there are only three slots for Japanese dramas (two on Thursday nights, one new one on Sunday) that are already occupied.

Nevertheless, I will be interested in Bijo ka yajuu ("Beauty or the Beast", or "Kiss? Fight?" - you get the idea), starring Matsushima Nanako & Fukuyama Masaharu as the beauty & beast respectively (of course); Itsumo futari de ("Always together"), starring Matsu Takako, Sakaguchi Kenji & Kashiwabara Takashi; & Otousan ("Father"), starring Tamura Masakazu as the father of 4 daughters, two of which are played by Hirosue Ryoko & Fukada Kyoko. For some perspective, these dramas were shown in Japan between winter 2002 & spring 2003 - they're "fresh." Now all we have to do is wait.

Going to Shanghai

25 August 2003 5:51 PM SGT (link)

THE National University of Singapore (NUS) will set up a college in Shanghai to develop Singaporeans who will be adept at working and doing business in China.

Come January, 100 NUS students will head for Shanghai to spend a year studying entrepreneurship, business and management courses at its renowned Fudan University. They will also intern at Fudan's start-ups.

...Third-year electrical engineering student Quek Wan Ting, 21, a technopreneur wannabe and one of the five selected so far, is all ready to go.

Shanghai would be the ideal place to start a high-tech business, she said.

'It is a thriving city, and of course, the gateway to the biggest consumer market in the world.

'I would be crazy not to seize an opportunity like this.'

- ST 25 Aug, NUS sending students to Shanghai

Wan Ting was my classmate back at RJ. It's nice to see people you know getting interviewed in the papers or on TV. That doesn't happen too often.

Link updates

24 August 2003 10:15 PM SGT (link)

Updated the Links page: new links on Japanese dramas, mathematics & philosophy. I will also be doing a post on the Japanese drama sites, so stay tuned. Got to finish my readings for tomorrow's tutorial first.

Flash mobs & blackout crowds

24 August 2003 6:33 PM SGT (link)

...Some observers have written off the phenomenon as a slightly annoying fad, the techno equivalent of streaking. Others detect a "social revolution" in the offing.

Well, the blackout of Aug. 14 didn't do much for any revolutionary claims. For all the bravado about our deeply connected world, the blackout showed how quickly it can all come undone. For starters, it takes old-economy power to keep many of the new-economy nodes of connection open. The failure of cellular networks meant long lines at those pay phones still in operation (the spread of cellphones having greatly reduced the number of pay phones in recent years). Citizens connected -- but they did so by crowding around individuals with radios, or simply by talking to whichever strangers were physically proximate. The techno-linked hive mind was not really in evidence.

- New York Times Magazine 24 Aug, We're All Connected?

I don't think even the most enthusiastic flash mobsters made claims about the "techo-linked hive mind" taking over the world. If the fact that organising flash mobs involves delicate planning through email & the Internet, hence it's none too revolutionary as proven by blackouts, then we will have to say the same for anything that needs electricity.

...flash mobs, in their apparent pointlessness, have steered so conspicuously away from being exploited by either commercial interests or the professional theorizers who will inevitably organize highfalutin conferences to swap career-advancing pronouncements on the trend; for now, mobbists serve the cause of no cause. That might sound like a cop-out -- especially when set against the ideology behind the Civil Rights struggles -- but it's understandable. Which is more likely to happen first: 500 people converge and spend 15 minutes instantly cleaning up a neglected urban playground, or a sneaker company organizes a word-of-thumb "flash-mob party" in a warehouse somewhere? Flash mobs might be a peek at the future of crowds, but also, perhaps, a last glimpse of their good old days.

- New York Times Magazine 24 Aug, We're All Connected?

Again the spectre of commercialism or politics taking over flash mobs. When he calls flash mobs cop-outs, I'm again moved to say: "who said he was trying to be Martin Luther King?" What's more, he's practically daring somebody out there to do an urban playground flash mob, though I suspect one could not get much cleaning done in a few minutes.

More commitment in Iraq; some unsung heroes

24 August 2003 6:16 PM SGT (link)

Thomas Friedman writes about Fighting 'The Big One' in the New York Times, & correctly pinpoints the real significance of success or failure in rebuilding Iraq, & the Bush administration's unfortunate lapses in the area:

...You'd think from listening to America's European and Arab critics that we'd upset some bucolic native culture and natural harmony in Iraq, as if the Baath Party were some colorful local tribe out of National Geographic. Alas, our opponents in Iraq, and their fellow travelers, know otherwise. They know they represent various forms of clan and gang rule, and various forms of religious and secular totalitarianism from Talibanism to Baathism. And they know that they need external enemies to thrive and justify imposing their demented visions.

In short, America's opponents know just what's at stake in the postwar struggle for Iraq, which is why they flock there: beat America's ideas in Iraq and you beat them out of the whole region; lose to America there, lose everywhere.

- New York Times 24 Aug, Fighting 'The Big One'

The Weekly Standard also calls on the administration to Do What It Takes in Iraq: "we need more troops, money & personnel," in essence.

Also, Steven Erlanger reminisces in the New York Times about Sergio Vieria de Mello, the top UN official in Iraq that was tragically killed in the recent bombing of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad. He also mentions Nadia Younes, de Mello's chief of staff, who was also killed. de Mello had served in UN missions in both Kosovo & East Timor, & was highly regarded:

...Sergio and Nadia lived lives of sacrifice and substance. Their deaths both shame and mock the armchair warriors, the television talk-show mudwrestlers, the pontificators, the manipulators and the simplifiers. Their deaths are a reminder that imperium, no matter how benign its intent, is never altruistic, and calls forth its own responses. And their lives are a reminder that it is just possible to do some small good in this rank, sorry, blood-drenched world.

- New York Times 24 Aug, 'I Should Always Believe Journalists,' He Said, Adding: 'Please Pray for Me.'

The ST today complements Erlanger's eulogy for de Mello with an article on Younes, but given an odd twist: Baghdad blast killed woman who coined 'Sars'.

Sentence beyond maximum reversed

23 August 2003 10:41 PM SGT (link)

...Lawyers contacted yesterday said that the decision would have a tremendous impact on practising lawyers, the courts and the Attorney-General's Chambers.

It makes it easier for lawyers to advise their clients and to understand the meaning of the provision.

'There now is certainty as the Court of Appeal has reiterated the law as it stands. If it went the other way, then a precedent would have been created and would beg the question whether a host of other cases could face longer sentences,' said Mr S. Krishnasamy.

Lawyers Leo Fernando and Subhas Anandan said it spoke well of the system.

Said Mr Subhas: 'In a system of law, everybody can make mistakes, and it is very good that we've got a machinery that will rectify mistakes. We should be happy that we have such a system.'

- ST 23 Aug, Lawyer-basher's sentence beyond maximum ruled wrong

...For lawyers and their clients, it's a welcome clarification.

Last December, when Today ran a feature on the CJ's ruling, legal eagles had noted that the CJ's actions including his reputation for having raised the sentence without prosecutors asking for it -- had raised some disquiet in the legal fraternity.

So, the Court of Appeal's decision will come, for many, as a vindication of the integrity of the legal system. "Though most of the time the CJ is the president of the Court of Appeal, the fact remains that the CJ can be corrected," said Mr Anandan. "That is a great feeling of confidence for the people and the investors because you have a system with checks and counter-checks."

As for what happens to Louis, lawyers say it is most likely that his sentence will revert to the original six-year jail term.

- Today 23 Aug, Court of Appeal overturns CJ's ruling

Well at least it was reversed. I find it really strange that everyone's going out of the way to be really nice to the CJ & his opinion that used an obscure provision of the law to give a sentence above the maximum for the charge, & that he had just made "a [simple] mistake". Smacks of the "honest mistake" IDA claimed they committed in over-compensating SingTel by $388m the other time, after their attempt in court to get it back was rebuffed. Perhaps it's obligatory in the legal fraternity to bend over backwards to be nice to the CJ even when his rulings are so obviously controversial, & um (now that the Court of Appeals has agreed) wrong. I wonder what my lawyers-to-be friends have to say about this?

North Korea

23 August 2003 3:43 PM SGT (link)

With the debate about Iraq & North Korea stirring up again, it's coincidental to see 'Regime change' for N. Korea? That's no solution in today's ST. Tom Plate denounces former CIA director James Woolsey's comments calling for war against North Korea, saying that this is irresponsible when the US is hardly having an easy time managing regime change in Afghanistan & Iraq, & the six-way talks with North Korea have yet to start, even. I suppose it was the talk mentioned here: Ex-CIA director speaks at NPS (Naval Postgraduate School) (Monterey Herald). Woolsey also recently wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal with retired Gen. Thomas G. McInerney on the prospects of success in a war against North Korea. (See Nuclear Blackmail, The American Prospect, for a summary & comments.)

I think Plate is essentially correct in saying that calling for regime change lightly is hardly a wise course of action, especially with the temperamental regime of Kim Jong-Il. No one is questioning the ability of the US & South Korea to vanquish the North Koreans, provided they're willing to pay the heavy price - & that's not likely to come from a war-weary US public & South Koreans who naturally fear for their lives & their country. Woolsey & McInerney suggest that China may be forced to get involved to topple Kim, being North Korea's biggest patron, once they're convinced that the US & South Korea will use force. But the consequences will be disastrous; war will definitely not be as easy as Woolsey claims it will be, for an overstretched & overcommitted US military, & for the South Koreans who will still have artillery shells raining down on them however precise the US cruise missiles are (because there simply are too many to knock out). & the prospect of nuclear conflict is even more unpalatable.

That's why I agree that while the US & South Korea have to be prepared for war, they should not be too eager to champion it, because it's the worst of all options. At the same time, I agree with the US stance up to now, to involve the regional powers like China, Russia, Japan & South Korea, rather than go through the deja vu bilteral rigmarole & get blackmailed again. The Agreed Framework may have pacified Kim for some years, but it was not a permanent solution - the Bush administration's tough stance only hastened its collapse. North Korea still poses a threat, non-aggression treaty or not. With an unpredictable despot ready to launch ballistic missiles at them, & going nuclear, is Japan going to stand idly by & not call for either guarantees of security or a beefed-up military of their own? Ditto South Korea. This is definitely not just the Americans' problem.

Diplomacy & containment are the rational options now, but in the long term, I think regime change, together with commitments from neighbours & the US for reconstruction, should be the outcome to pursue.

& for those who ask why I'm bellicose about war in Iraq but support diplomacy (but with a tough stance) against North Korea, it's primarily because war in the Korean peninsula is unthinkable, militarily & politically. & I don't see anything wrong with saying that. This is something I've considered before I decided to support Gulf War II, mind you. There is no requirement to refrain from being a "hypocrite" in such matters: one doesn't have to be hawk or a dove all the time. The two situations are markedly different & naturally the means of achieving solutions are different. To ask for steadfast consistency even in the face of radically different situations is to be reckless & naive, I have to say.

The Osaka mystery solved

22 August 2003 9:25 AM SGT (link)

It didn't turn out to be much of a mystery after all. Last week I commented on the strange way Kaede got to Osaka in Home & Away episode 2. This time we hear the truck driver's full explanation: he took the coastal route through Akita (the city I forgot last time), Niigata, past Mount Fuji, & to Osaka. Later he would swing back to Nakata, Morimoto & then finally to Tokyo (I could not find these two cities/towns in my atlas: perhaps I got the names wrong).

I find I'm steadily losing interest in the particulars of whom Kaede meets & helps. It may be getting a bit cliché, despite what I previously said. I've noticed that Kaede has played a substitute sister, mother & daughter respectively, & by the end of yesterday's episode, she has made it to her apartment block in Tokyo but is stopped by the debt collector mentioned in Episode 1. What could they possibly have her do next? It probably won't involve taking up those roles again - there are only so many variations of those.

Anyway Channel 8 is showing Dekichatta Kekkon, or Shotgun Marriage, starring Takenouchi Yutaka & Hirosue Ryoko, immediately after Home & Away at 12.15 am. This show was last screened 2 years ago, & as much as I like it, it's a sign that Channel 8 has nothing newer & better to offer.

Fighting yesterday's battles

21 August 2003 8:53 PM SGT (link)

I now consider arguing for or against the war in Iraq as pretty much fighting yesterday's battles. To be sure, there are aspects of the run-up to Gulf War II that deserve greater scrutiny, such as the scandal in UK involving government officials "sexing up" the Iraq weapons dossiers, & possible political influence on the respective intelligence agencies in the US. In order for a democracy to function as it should, with major decisions like war approved by Congress and/or (?) the people, the information available should not have been beholden to influence from people with other agendas besides the national interest.

However, I consider the main "liberal" (in the American context) reasons for opposing the war as pretty much bankrupt, as conservatives like Instapundit & the folks at National Review Online have said, & in fact continue to say. The Instapundit may be harsh to the point of irritation (e.g. for his constant berating of the French) but I feel he's got the basics right. I'm bringing up these battles of yesterday now because my tutor used caricatures of George W. Bush & the reasons to go to war against Saddam's Iraq to explain points relating to over-generalisation of ideas (specifically the paradox of "liberation", "democracy" imposed by imperialists). I'm not too sure how we got down that path, but at that time I thought: wow, here before me eyes is the shrill left-wing academic the likes of Instapundit & den Beste are mocking all the time. It was like a Bigfoot sighting.

But first a digression: when people ask "aren't you too young to be a conservative?", I reply "aren't you too old to be a liberal?" Hahaha.

Claim: It's up to the Iraqis to seek "democracy" & "liberation", not George W. Bush.

Saddam had been in power for 25 years, up to being toppled from power in April this year. In the 80s the US clandestinely supported him because they were bitter enemies with Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran, but that came to a stop when Saddam deployed chemical weapons against the Iranians & the northern Kurds, & later invaded Kuwait. One of the big chances the Iraqis had of liberating themselves, so to speak (if the left-wingers agree that a nation's people has the right to remove an unwanted leader, by force if necessary, & hence liberate themselves, as the Declaration of Independence says), was in the aftermath of Gulf War I when President George Bush (the 41st) called on them to topple Saddam, & indeed there were Kurdish & Shiite uprisings. Later, the US & the larger UN coalition decided not to march on to Baghdad, because they were there solely to drive out the Iraqis from Kuwait, the attempted coup was cruelly squashed, & a decade later, pre-Gulf War II, some of the southern Shiites still invoke the 1991 incident as a reason for suspecting the sincerity of the Americans. (Conversely, if George Bush had decided to march on to Baghdad, it would indeed be a gross violation of a UN resolution, & I daresay would have brought more brickbats onto the Americans even if Saddam had been successfully deposed.)

So if that was the best chance the Iraqis got, & afterwards they could only quietly raise money overseas while Saddam consolidated his power with the UN sanctions (an unintended side-effect of them), is the "liberal" to shrug his shoulders & say, well, it's up to the Iraqis? I feel this demonstrates one of the "black holes" that these anti-war folks dare not to go near: that actually in these decade or so, Iraq has basically not registered on their radar except for the "cruel UN sanctions" that according to Saddam were killing hundreds of thousands of children every year. With Saddam constrained by the sanctions & the no-fly zones half a world away policed by US & UK military, of whom they'd rather not think about, the "liberal" would very gladly leave the Iraqis alone with Saddam while they go off clanging the cymbals about the next humanitarian crisis or national disaster. "It's up to the Iraqis" becomes "to heck with them." Or else they would campaign for the removal of sanctions & not bother to seek an alternative solution.

& that's bearing in mind that the US & UK did not go to war with Saddam for humanitarian reasons. They were good reasons, but not sufficient ones. Here the liberals would no doubt point to other examples of corrupt tyrannic despots around the world & say "why not here?", & then conclude the US & UK were in Iraq because of oil. What fantastic leaps of logic! I have deferred to Tony Blair's answer: "...Yes, let's get rid of them all. I don't because I can't, but when you can, you should." Just because you can't get rid of all doesn't mean you can't get rid of one, considering that that one was one of the prime targets.

Further, I will argue that there is a basic core of humanity & ideals, something like what's in the Official UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, & some things are unacceptable to all right-minded people everywhere. We don't have to take a poll to find out whether torturing footballers or raping women off the street or gassing other human beings - all of which Saddam & his sons have done - is wrong, or is a part of "Iraqi culture" (a part of Hitler's & Stalin's culture, more so). I don't think many anti-war folks - France, Russia, Germany, protestors around the world - were for Saddam & his oppressive ways, but more like against Bush. That's what I think is the tragedy of this matter: that people ended up on a bloodthirsty tyrant's side because of their personal dislike of the man leading the other front. They conflated their abhorrence of Bush - his domestic policies, his lack of intellectual gravitas, the bungled 2000 election process - with the Iraq war, & basically buried their heads in the sand about the real reasons for it.

For the record, these are the main reasons: (1) to eliminate one of the sources of terrorist funding & support (& post-war, proof has been found that Saddam & his government did indeed have contacts with members of al-Qaeda). (2) to alter the balance of power in the Middle East to the United States' favour. This is the more neo-conservative stance, & some people consider this totally sinister. But we must remember that this is a war. Osama bin Laden & his supporters are not housebreakers or common criminals: they are dangerous men motivated by messianic zeal to kill & maim the innocent. Normal policing work is not going to do the trick. Unfortunately when Bush tried to address the "root causes of terrorism", they were different from the left-wing consensus (poverty, lack of education, US presence in Saudi Arabia: all untrue). The root causes are political: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despotic governments that clandestinely or openly support anti-Americanism, millions politically disenfranchised & dissatisfied, mixed in with Islamic fundamentalism.

It was also becoming evident that the UN sanctions regime was becoming unsustainable. Before Gulf War II, France & Russia had already been advocating lifting the sanctions, for their own business interests. No one besides the US & UK was interested in addressing why there were sanctions on Iraq in the first place, & why no-fly zones were there: Saddam's refusal to come clean with his chemical & biological weapons (according to UN inspectors), & his posing as a threat to his neighbours & Kurdish Iraqis. More inspections? Saddam has had 12 years! (Lengthened inspections would take the attention of the world off him, & he could have yet more.) The matter of sexed-up dossiers & intelligence is important, but it is undeniable that Saddam was hiding something, so that in the absence of a consensus at the Security Council, & the increased threat of a Saddam in a post-9/11 world, the US & UK could not just stand by & do nothing - & they acted, to their credit.

UN bombing in Iraq

We have suffered greatly from the United Nations. Under no circumstances should any Muslim or sane person resort to the United Nations. The United Nations is nothing but a tool of crime.

— Osama bin Laden, November 3, 2001

The terrorist bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad was a particularly brutal and senseless act of violence. Whose idea was it to kill Sergio Vieira de Mello, U.N. special representative in Iraq and former High Commissioner for Human Rights? Who thought it would be useful for the cause to murder Chris Klein-Beckman the head of UNICEF in Iraq? How would all the other dozens of death and casualties bring about the Islamic paradise the terrorists say they are fighting to establish? If nothing else, killing this group of peaceful people pursuing a humanitarian mission demonstrated the terrorists' sincerity. They really are at war with the civilized world.

- National Review Online, Them vs. the Civilized World

"Them vs. the Civilized World" is a breath of fresh air amidst the usual media coverage of Iraq today as a chaotic mess with US soldiers getting killed every day, blackouts & fuel shortages, & simmering Iraqi dissatisfaction with the occupation forces. There probably isn't a coherent agenda behind such nearly consistently negative reporting - the latest sensationalistic tragedy is easier to cover than what's gradually getting better - but I suspect it has to do with the Vietnam War trauma, & their discontent about how futile their opposition to the Iraq war was, & (to a slight degree) by how easily the Americans vanquished Saddam's forces. (See the Los Angeles Times's Iraq's swift defeat blamed on leaders for a fascinating account.) The NRO article points out the threat Iraq & others are facing, & gives the reason why the Americans & British are there.

The recent unrest in Iraq, & terrorist attacks on the Jordanian embassy & now the UN headquarters in Baghdad, illustrate this perfectly clearly: the terrorists are not on the side of peace & against American imperialism. They are there to hinder the reconstruction of Iraq & its transformation into the first free Arab state, where people are entitled to speak up & lead their own lives, where oil wealth can serve the common good rather than just the royalty's or despot's, where terrorists will have no home. Perhaps UN supporters & anti-war folk are scratching their heads & asking the question "why? why us?", as Americans did during 9/11 (remember 9/11?). After all, those were humanitarian workers on a mission of peace. Why would anyone attack them?

This is the situation we all have to come to terms with. We may like to think of ourselves as enlightened, having put behind the barbarism of imperialism & war, when actually the world has yet to catch up. The vulnerabilities of this happy-go-lucky attitude demonstrated themselves loud & clear in New York & Washington on 11 September 2001 - let none of us forget that what kind of a grave threat these terrorists pose to our civilisation, our way of life.

Bach's invention

21 August 2003 6:48 PM SGT (link)

invention (n)
Music. A short composition developing a single theme contrapuntally.

- Dictionary.com, invention

There you have it. I'm learning a two-page one by J. S. Bach - it's amazing that when you first play it slowly, it just sounds like noise, but when you get the hang of how the left- & right-hand melodies interact with each other, the beauty starts to appear. Not that I'll know much about its beauty without a thorough study of harmony & counterpoint & such cheem concepts.

The multiverse

21 August 2003 12:52 PM SGT (link)

My So-Called Universe (love the title) at Slate, by Jim Holt, succinctly describes the latest theories from physicists & philosophers on the multiverse, or lots of universes. These theories include the most mainstream one: that the model of our universe as revealed by the cosmic background radiation says that space is infinite (but the speed of light is not, so we can't see everything; it also explains "why is the sky dark at night?", or Olbers's paradox). If space is infinite, literally everything that can be represented in spacetime does happen, & according to the "back-of-the-envelope" calculations, an exact copy of you resides just 10 to the power of 10 to the power of 28 light-years away. (Scientific American had a cover story in May on theories of the multiverse that basically covers the same ground, but in more detail: Parallel Universes.)

What I really like about Holt's analysis is that almost from the start he mentions what I consider a lexical problem, but not a big problem overall: doesn't the word uni-verse necessarily mean the (single) totality of all things? Isn't talking about a multiverse of universes something like saying "everybody & their grandmother says this"? OK maybe it isn't in formal set relations, but you get the idea. Holt replies that physicists & philosophers aren't having problems with definitions here, & gives 5 distinguishing features of the theoretical "uni"-verses.

Holt then differentiates theories of multiverses into those based on empirical observation, like the one above from astronomical phenomena, & those who have been logically called into existence, so to speak, to solve conundrums in physics or philosophy, such as the "many-worlds" interpretation of quantum theory (the problem Schrodinger's Cat was concerned about). Then he gives 3 arguments people like Martin Gardner & Paul Davies have made against such multiverse theories: (1) they're not science (they mean not testable, a la logical positivism, but I'm inclined to go with the more Popperian they're not falsifiable, & hence irrelevant in a sense if we consider...) (2) Occam's Razor: do not multiply entities beyond necessity. (3) The multiverse would imply that our own world could be a Matrix-like simulation. I agree that this is "bizarre."

Lastly, I like Holt's conclusion, where he attempts to give some advice to the scientifically-literate layman who's wondering what to make of all this.

...How seriously should you take multiple universes? That depends on how scrupulous you are about your ontological commitments. I know people who still regard atoms as theoretical fictions. I have friends who claim to doubt the reality of the past, of the future, of other minds. I have heard of academics—though I cannot believe they actually exist—who think that the cosmos is a social construction. But I am a robust scientific realist. If an empirically sound theory entails that unobservable entities exist, then I take them at face value. After all, reality has over and over again turned out to be much more inclusive than we've given it credit for being. Just a century ago, our puny Milky Way was thought to comprise the entire cosmos.

If the choices we make in our everyday lives seem a little absurd from the viewpoint of a single vast and eternal universe, then, from the viewpoint of an infinite ensemble of universes containing infinite copies of ourselves, all making every possible choice, they are absolutely absurd. Thankfully, in our own little world, those choices remain terribly meaningful and important.

- Slate, My So-Called Universe

Basically: leave it to the physicists & philosophers. It's good advice, until someone attempts to make something more out of these speculations, of course.

Stoned oracle

21 August 2003 12:44 PM SGT (link)

The oracle was as high as Mount Parnassus, reports Robin McKie.

She advised generals about invasions, told citizens about the fates of their investments and even warned Oedipus about the dangers of murdering his father and marrying his mother.

Yet the oracle at Delphi was not blessed with prophetic vision, scientists have discovered. In fact, she was high on alcoholic vapours.

..."God though he was, Apollo had to speak through the voices of mortals," say the researchers, "and he had to inspire them with stimuli that were part of the natural world."

- The Age, Delphi's oracle was just stoned

I think one would really have to suspend belief for the last paragraph.

Missed chance, or megalomania?

21 August 2003 12:32 PM SGT (link)

I'll reproduce the whole article here because it's short:

YOU'VE heard the puzzle: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, has it made a sound?

And, if a minister gives a speech about improving relations with the media, but the media isn't let into the hall because the minister has started speaking and you're five minutes late has the minister truly spoken?

Yesterday, at the PR Academy's 2nd Annual Conference 2003 dubbed "Strategic Communications: Perception is Reality", this reporter and another from Singapore Press Holdings were barred from entering the venue by the real big "P" in the Civil Service: "Protocol".

"We can't let you in, the minister is speaking," said the PR Academy folk, as one stood with his ear planted against the thick wooden doors and the other pushing the door a few millimetres occasionally to check if the speech was over before letting latecomers in.

Ironically, in his off-the-cuff speech, Environment Minister Lim Swee Say was sharing with 200 policy-makers, civil servants and Government communicators the importance of making the media a partner in transmitting policy changes to the masses.

Fair enough, we should have arrived earlier. But, the wooden and rigid reception didn't help. Fortunately, Government corporate communications officers later obligingly filled us in on Mr Lim's quote: "People do not care how much we know, until they know how much we care."

Set up in June 2001 by the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, the PR Academy meant to enhance the professionalism of Government communicators through training, consultancy and research was perceived to score low on the "care" quotient, though perhaps the reality may not be so.

After all, Mr Mike McCurry, former Press Secretary to President Bill Clinton quipped: "Reporters have scepticism ingrained into their DNA."

Mr Lim also reminded policy-makers that even good publicity cannot make a bad policy good.

Indeed, Mr McCurry said in his address: "Perception is reality, but sometimes reality is reality." - Tor Ching Li

- Today 21 Aug, Missed chance to do some PR?

This is a fine example of journalistic megalomania, or taitai behaviour: just because the minister had some words to say on the role of the media & the media representatives weren't present because they were late, then those words count for nothing. If I were late for an event like this, I'll be much more humble in waxing rhetoric about the philosophical implications of the minister's speech, & complaining about the "wooden and rigid reception" of the staff outside. Since the journalist declined to offer any good excuses for being late, along with the other media representative, I will have to say that this is a disgraceful piece.

Flash mobs in Washington D.C.

21 August 2003 12:18 PM SGT (link)

Their watches synchronized, about 75 young professionals swarmed through the doors of the Books-a-Million store on Dupont Circle at precisely 7:28 p.m. on Tuesday.

They drifted to the magazine racks and grabbed copies of GQ, Out, Budget Travel, PC World and Modern Bride.

Six minutes later, everyone swapped magazines and began to read aloud. Sixty seconds later, they cheered and high-fived as puzzled customers stared. Then the pack walked back out the doors and dispersed onto the surrounding streets.

This was not a Washington protest. This was a "flash mob," the latest fad among the digitally connected, people eager for whimsy in this summer of suicide bombers and war, looking for a chance to do something wacky.

...Flash mobs work like this: Someone e-mails participants to meet at a designated place and time. As they show up, mobbers get more detailed instructions about what "act" the group will perform. Some mobs also advertise in advance at www.flocksmart.com , where more than 100 planned flash mobs, from London to Virginia Beach, were listed yesterday.

Washington, the home of multi-page, single-thought regulations, has been slow to "get" flash mobs. In New York, the fad's unverified but widely accepted birthplace, the cognoscenti have declared the trend dead, two months after it started.

- Washington Post 21 Aug, A Fast-Moving Fad Comes Slowly to Washington

Dead already?

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