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All posts for the month December, 2004

Looking at maps of South East Asia and the Indian Ocean, it was striking that whilst Thailand, Bangladesh and the Anadaman & Nicobar Islands (not to mention Sumatra/Aceh, India, Sri-Lanka and West Africa) were all making the tsunami news in the last few days, it was as if Burma was off the map ?

If Phuket and Phi Phi were wrecked, how could the adjacent and much longer coast and islands of Myanmar not be similarly affected, not to mention further up around Yangon and the Irrawaddy and beyond.

It’s at times like this you notice how repressive a regime exists there – all e-mail from and web-sites within its borders being censored, and very little western access to the country. Free Burmese press outside Myanmar, has little more access to information than the official and approved sources at times like this. The official toll still stands at only 90, with only suggestions of thousands “the number is being under-reported, and not by a little” [Foundation for the People of Burma].

There are positive reports of specific Burmese beaches and areas being unaffected by the tsunami, but also reports of more significant aftershock earthquakes in Myanmar and Northern Thailand, including specific reports of the earthquake itself breaking ground and throwing up fire & lava. Chillingly defensive statements from the official press (New Light of Myanmar) “No country in the world can predict the earthquake …. do not believe rumours.”

[Radio Free Asia][Melbourne Herald Sun][ABC News / Reuters]

Also [Road To Mandalay], private business, but presumably “approved” site inside Myanmar says … Fortunately Myanmar was spared most of the force of the Tsunamis. The Myeik / Mergui archipelago and coastal towns were largely untouched, and hence the Moken (Sea Gypsies) are safe. In Kawthoung a bridge collaped. Ngapali, Chaunga and Nwesaung beaches have not been affected. The main affected areas are in the Ayeyawady Delta.

Also, from SmartTravelAsia “Myanmar escaped lightly and beach areas are not affected. According to Martijn van der Valk, general manager of the venerable The Strand (www.ghmhotels.com) , Yangon, ?At 7.40am on Sunday 26 December we felt a three-minute minor earthquake, shaking beds and tables and chairs, and swinging chandeliers.? The hotel is unaffected and the airport is functioning normally. The Bayview Resort on Ngapali Beach reports that the hotel is ?not affected? and beach activities continue normally.”

And from Xinhua Online China News “According to government statistics, 36 people were killed, 14 missing and 45 injured as of Tuesday afternoon by earthquake and tsunami. The figures also said 138 buildings were destroyed in some parts of the country’s six divisions and states — Tanintharyi, Yangon, Bago, Ayeyawaddy, Rakhine and Shan (South) and 778 people were left homeless. Meanwhile, a moderate earthquake of 5.1-magnitude with its epicenter 286 km north of Yangon occurred at 7:40 am (local time) Thursday morning, the country’s meteorology department announced. No casualties have so far been reported.”

Here’s hoping Myanmar was indeed fortunate. Perhaps those offshore islands were mainly uninhabited and protected much of the rest of the coastline, and perhaps the angle of the coastline north of the Thai border means the progress of the wave from the initial quake was mainly along the shore ?

Creative destruction probably pre-dates Noah’s biblical flood, or the possibly catastrophic extinction of the dinosaurs, but I’ve seen the term itself used since Marx and Schumpeter coined it. Eggs need to be broken to make an omelette, or anything revolutionarily different from its antecendents.

Many, in all seriousness, including myself, tagged 9/11 the same way – see the footnote on every page of my blog. I noticed that Voltaire’s outlook on life, and much of 18th century enlightenment, was markedly affected by the Lisbon Earthquake.

What with the US Politics and Religion, Globalisation and Oil, Palestine and Iraq, etc as centre stage subjects everywhere since 9/11, might I possibly hope that the Indian Ocean Tsunami proves as creative as it was biblically destructive, in getting western hypocritical, self-interested agendas off the front page for a while.

I guess the problem with 9/11, in this respect, was that those most affected (beyond those immediately involved, dead and bereaved) were those least interested in learning the lesson. William Barrett said “Man is willing to learn about himself only after some disaster. What he learns has always been there [and] it is no less true for having come out of a period of chaos and disaster.”

As you may have noticed, I’m reading my way through a number books by neurosurgeons and brain scientists, as part of reviewing state of the art understanding of “perception”. Recently I read Edeleman, Zeman and Austin’s books, and more recently started Oliver Sacks “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat”, full of intriguing stories (in the first half) about case studies where his patients have misperceived the world.

As well as the eponymous man who really did try to put his wife on his head (!) as he stood up to leave Sacks’ office, the cases range from total amnesia, short and long term amnesia before, within and after time bounded periods, selective amnesia, and other modal mis-perceptions – phantom limbs (perceived limbs that have actually been lost) foreign parts (actual body parts perceived as alien, and practically useless, or worse), ability to perceive only part of a field of view, perceiving moving objects but not stationary, to name but a few.

Prognoses and outcomes vary, but one is constantly amazed at the dynamism and plasticity of the central nervous system to re-learn alternative means of perceiving and dealing with the world, once the individual brain is shown the reality of its situation. Very like Adam Zeman’s case of the patient who learned to “see” through a patch of skin on their abdomen – weirder things have happened. Read Sacks.

Most striking, given the previous post, are the various blindnesses to words or meaning – quite independently, often as part of other degenerative diseases of the elderly who, incidentally, provide Sacks with a wealth of case-studies. In “The President’s Speech”, referring to a thinly disguised Ronald Reagan (?), he refers to a group of individuals who gained every nuance of honesty, intent and spin from his voice-tones, facial expression and body language, much to their amusement, despite not perceiving a single word he actually said, contrasted with a very elderly Emily D (poetess – thinly disguised also ?) who could not understand the sense of sentences people spoke to her, unless they were grammatically correct, and pronounced very clearly. She had no means of detecting irony, truth, humour, tones or moods of any kind, beyond the semantics of the words used.

In all Sacks cases, the problems are with “processing” the data, not with primary sensory or motor defects. What these “freaks” tell us – and they are rare cases – is a great deal about how our mind really works to perceive the apparent world, and build a coherent model of it. Also, being at that fuzzy brain / mind boundary of “thinking meat”, the issues cannot fail to have an epistemological or other philosophical angle.

Here it’s the debate about the “right to offend” sparked by the recent Sikh religious debate over the content of the play at the Birmingham Rep.

This is at the highest political / public / human / artistic rights level, but Chris Argyris showed that avoidance of offence (and embarrassment) was at the root of misinformation in day to day business communication too. It’s what Brunsson is referring to by “hypocrisy” in business management. I call it political correctness – the enemy of truth if you like, causing facts to be obscured, and bad decisions made, at the very least.

Religion is, almost by definition, about being politically correct – choosing what to believe, based on prejudice. The balance between a right to offend and the incitement of religious hatred is a necessarily subjective line, hatred being the key word – emotional intent behind a message, not its actual content.

Fate doesn’t hang on a wrong or right choice,
Fortune depends on the tone of your voice.
Says Neil Hannon.

Divine Comedy again, this time Songs of Love – ironically, talking of religious offence, the theme tune to Father Ted. Just think of those e-mail exchanges that might have gone better if only you had remembered to insert an emoticon. This is crucial stuff, not minor nuisance.

Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing. Just relived the whole of Muse Sunday night gig from Earls Court again live on Monday night via XFM On-line, this time with lyrics courtesy of Microcuts. Magic. (Oh, and with a little help from Kingston On-line.)

This is Sunday’s set list.

Hysteria
Butterflies And Hurricanes
Newborn
Sing For Absolution
A Crying Shame
Muscle Museum
Citizen Erased
Ruled By Secrecy
Piano Interlude
Sunburn
Thoughts Of A Dying Atheist
The Small Print
Time Is Running Out
Plug In Baby
Bliss
—-
Dead Star
Microcuts
—-
Apocalypse Please
Stockholm Syndrome
——

Monday’s set was ….
(Not confirmed, some debate.)

Apocalypse Please
Hysteria
The Small Print
Sing For Absolution
Microcuts
Citizen Erased
Piano Interlude
Space Dementia
Ruled By Secrecy
Piano Interlude
Sunburn
New Born
Butterflies And Hurricanes
Muscle Museum
Bliss
Plug In Baby
Dead Star (broadcast) DES (new,live)
—-
Time Is Running Out
Blackout
Stockholm Syndrome
——

(Set lists courtesy of Muse Forum)

I saw Muse at Earl’s Court last night, with The Zutons and SoulWax supporting. I do not know why Matt Bellamy is not a more major superstar. Admittedly it’s all done with the aid of electronic gizmos and a huge team of sound and lighting techies, but on guitar, keyboard and vocals he is an amazing talent. He’s a showman too, just enough to complement his musical talents, and so many of his songs have anthemic chorus lines and riffs for an audience in a barn that size to sing along at full voice.

Never did like Earl’s Court as a venue, but Matt’s three-piece pulled it off. Brilliant, and I don’t just mean the light show.

I have had the pleasure and benefit of corresponding with Robert Pirsig in recent months, and as a result have been able to make and publish a significant update to my Robert Pirsig Biographical Timeline.

See my Pirsig Project Pages for the significance of Robert Pirsig, author of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (1974) and “Lila, an Inquiry into Morals” (1991), to my knowledge modelling objectives.

“The relevance to our present day situation seems to me to be impossible to exaggerate” said Dr James Willis. I say Pirsig’s “Metaphysics of Quality” may not be an entirely original treatment of the epistemological continuum nor may it actually qualify as a “metaphysics”. However, the frustration of the Catch-22 of objective fundamentalism, which I’ve dubbed “the rational trap”, has probably never been better illuminated than the story of Pirsig’s own life. There, but for the grace of quality, go we all – to the lunatic asylum.

Far from fading with the passing of 60 years since Pirsig’s experiences began, we find the problem was not only ever thus, but that the recent combination of “scientific” management with ubiquitous information and communication technologies, simply throws the urgent need for alternative thinking into ever starker relief.

Geoff Boycott reporting on the England v South Africa test on Radio 4 Today Program this morning, made a telling comment … When the sports anchor man said of one bowler “his figures look good, but you say he didn’t play well”, Geoff responded with “ah yes, but you’re just looking at the numbers, I can see for myself what’s happening, what threat (or lack of it) he is really causing”.

Truth is more than numbers, but Einstein said it better.

And just yesterday on “Today”, they had a news item from some Intelligent Design Creationists. They had Steve Jones as the scientist to respond, but he had barely time for two sentences, roughly “This is poppycock. How come these guys even get air time ?”. This was of course exactly my response too. Today, Saturday, we have listener responses, which were mostly the same response, except for some pleas not to dismiss god entirely, but most supported that gaps in knowledge should be expected to exist, (I say knowledge is 99% gap) and we should not simply use God as an easy gap filler. However, one response illustrated my Catch-22 perfectly…

One respondent said “If all a scientist can do is be dismissive, not offer any rational evidence against intelligent design, and at best propose alternative explanations for the existence and wonderful variety of life, then of course “intelligent designers” are going to stick to their beliefs.

Proving a negative is never easy, some would say not actually possible, but whatever standard of proof, this is a lazy argument. Occam’s principle wins this one hands down – God seems a so much more simple answer to why, if the alternative answer involves complexity and huge quantities of events. This is a recurring debate on the MoQ Discussion board. At root, any single evolutionary event is the epitome of simplicity in fact, but people choose to see the massive emergent complexity.

After Candide, I’ve now read Micromegas.

Candide is beyond satirical, plainly a negative lampoon directed squarely, with disturbing imagination but little subtlety, at the “all’s right with God in this best of all possible worlds” view.

Micromegas’ satire is so much more subtle and miles ahead of its time. His evocation of the absurd – the John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett “I look down on him” sketch – concerns misconceptions of scale between three beings, the smallest being earth sized human, the other two being Saturnian and Sirian in scale. The essence is – how can a human (philosopher) expect their observations to tell them anything about the reality of a “world out there” with such vast ranges of scale over many orders of magnitude.

How could we ever expect “humanly agreed fact” to cover more than 1% of reality. How can we expect normal human experience to even comprehend scales from quanta to universes, how can normal human experience “get its head around” the probablilities in earthly evolution – 250 years before Dawkins’ Mount Improbable and Rees’ Six Numbers.

Micromegas makes you think, vs Candide’s ridicule.

(The Swiftian connections and connotations are all too apparent – I’m going to have to properly read Swift too.)

I’m still working my way through Dr James Austin’s “Zen and the Brain”, and I’ve reached a section on anesthesia and other consciousness altering chemical effects.

Actually, I took a break from Dr Austin, to read Voltaire’s Candide – short and sweet – humorous Swiftian-style satire on the “best of all possible worlds” view that a perfect world holds its fair (and very unfair) share of evil. Thoughtful, but not deep, as if Beyond Good and Evil (Nietzsche) had been written by Yann Martel (Life of Pi). Amazing for its mid to late 1700’s “age of enlightenment” times, when so much was happening. The story of Voltaire’s own life and travels is interesting in itself.

Talking of life stories, in the same break I’ve been working on updating the Pirsig Timeline (pending). Amongst other things I was researching Peyote and the LSD connection, which put me in mind of consciousness altering chemicals again. When I returned to Dr Austin’s chapters on anesthesiology, I remembered that Stuart Hameroff, of Quantum Consciousness fame, was an anesthesiologist originally, so I dived off and found two very interesting layman-directed interviews with Hameroff. [1997 Alternative Therapies],[2002/3 Nexus].

They range across the full gamut from quantum physics (uncertainty, non-locality and entanglement) with references to superstrings and holochory, energy processes underlying (apparent material) reality, microtubule components of cell structures, including neurons, and the link between these microtubules and orchestrated coherence of underlying quantum effects controlling the otherwise very simple macro-scale chemical diffusion processes of anesthesia and the conscious brain. Serious or seriously silly, it is compelling stuff.

The word Blog was the most searched word according to Merriam-Webster on-line dictionaries in the past year.[via BBC][via Blogger] A new Blog is created every 6 seconds.

(Interesting given the Fallujah situation that “insurgent” made it into the top four, along with other US election related jargon.)

Microsoft blogging too.[via BBC], and of course, broadband uptake is simply making any and all content publishing and linking so much easier. [also via BBC]