Fighting Terrorism

(Second post of Terrorists – this won’t become a theme. At least I will try not to make it a theme).

A terrorist is someone who kills people, often innocent bystanders in an attempt to force his or her views on others. Sometimes the terrorist is part of a persecuted minority, but often he or she is driven by religious fervour. His or her beliefs maybe include the concept of rewards after death and he or she will likely be prepared to lay down his or her life in the furtherance of his or her objectives.

How do you recognise a terrorist? With the current spate of Islamist inspired shootings and bombings many people are looking askance at people with dark skins, beards and who tend to wear a particular style of clothing. To say that this can be misleading is obvious.

Islamic Center of Washington DC

Islamic Center of Washington DC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The case of a Sikh student who was questioned by police when someone suspected that he was a terrorist merely because of his appearance and the wires of his earphones protruding from his bag is a good example. The person who reported him was obviously ignorant of the fact that Sihkism is a religion which is totally different from Islam. This is sad, but not surprising.

So how do you identify a terrorist then? It’s very hard indeed. The young white spotty youth who lives down the road and has taken to calling himself “Jusef” and dressing in Middle Eastern clothing is almost certainly more of a threat than anyone in the area with dark skin and a habit of fasting for a month at certain times of the year.

William Henry Quilliam (April 10, 1856 – 1932)...

William Henry Quilliam (April 10, 1856 – 1932), who changed his name to Abdullah Quilliam, was a 19th century convert from Christianity to Islam, noted for founding England’s first mosque and Islamic centre. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The things that people have done in the name of religion have led to a call for religion to be banned. This obviously won’t work and it would drive religion underground and radicalise it. There are billions of people who do have a religion or belief which they base their life around who would not dream of using violence to further their religion.

Much of the tension between religious groups is the result of ignorance. There are probably as many texts in the Koran which promote peace and harmony as there are in the Christian Bible. There are also likely to be as many violent exhortations as to what to do to non-believers in the Bible as there are in the Koran. After the Bible and the Koran are related documents with the later Koran commenting on the earlier Biblical texts.

English: Handwritten Koran Nederlands: Koran. ...

English: Handwritten Koran Nederlands: Koran. Handgeschreven Koran in donkerbruine lederen band met overslag (afgebroken). Het eerste en laatste dubbele blad zijn versierd, evenals het dubbele blad middenin. . Handgeschreven koran Unknown language: Qoran seunoerat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How can we spot terrorists before they commit their crimes? How do we determine who is a harmless and friendly family man and who is plotting to blow us up? Certainly not be looking at the colour of the skin and the possession of a copy of the Koran. Not by checking if he or she visits the Mosque every week. Even if such a person seems surly and unfriendly, he or she might just be having a bad day. And we cannot decide based on their choice of clothing.

The only real way of detecting a terrorist in our midst is unfortunately by closely watching for them. Of course, we should have our suspicions first, otherwise we would need to track everyone who “looked like a Muslim”. This is unacceptable in a free society.

We can get better understanding of Muslims and vice versa, by education. One proposal was that religion, all religions, be taught in schools. This is a good idea but will not work unless similar is done in Islamist states and countries, and that will never happen.

One big issue is the case of the alienated white teenager. A certain few will for one reason or another completely flip and commit murder, usually of their contemporaries, and sometimes at random. Any nominal motive would be attributed to anything from white supremacy, to political reason (usually nihilistic), or  to nothing significant.

It seems that such teenagers are more and more and more being attracted to Islam and the violent side of that religion and we find that atrocities are sometimes being carried out by white boys who have converted to Islam.

I question whether the problem here lies with the religion or in the fact that these kids had easy access to guns and that their alienation was either not recognised or ignored. If they had not had the concept of Islamic jihad to adopt, would they not have found some other cause to espouse?

Arabic script. Eghra, Read. The first Quoranic...

Arabic script. Eghra, Read. The first Quoranic word, in order of arrival. (Letter Qaf eight times, letter ‘Alif sixteen times.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So how do we fight terrorism? Do we suspect our neighbours who have ties to the Middle East, or do we quarantine them, or even deport them? All these solutions are ineffective and some followers of Islam have lived here peacefully for generations. Do we force them to give up their culture and assimilate more closely into the community?

All these options have been tried in the past and historically have shown that these tactics are ineffective, not to mention brutal and demeaning. And that is without considering the case of the alienated white boy.

CCTV cameras

CCTV cameras (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Government would have us believe that the answer is for more surveillance of all citizens. This is certainly effective in some cases, but in the few cases which escape the notice of the authorities, the terrorists can cause untold damage and inflict a large number of deaths on many innocent people. And this still doesn’t really address the issue of the white teenager who typically acts alone and who quite often has no close ties to Islam.

Another option is for retaliatory military raids on the overt face of the organisation that the terrorists are connected with, but this will always happen after an atrocity and merely gives the organisation rhetorical weapons to justify their aims.

English: A payload surveillance camera made by...

English: A payload surveillance camera made by Controp and distributed to the U.S Government by ADI Technologies. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is sad but I don’t believe that things will change until Islam changes. I have high hopes that it will as the adherents of Islam move into non-Moslem countries and integrate with the non-Moslem communities there. Then perhaps the more liberal ideas will filter back to the Moslem counties together with increased prosperity.

After all, the Christian religion mounted the largely ineffective Crusades against Moslems in the Middle East, admittedly as a result of an Islamist expansion and that crusading religious fervour eventually died out in Europe.

English: Saladin

English: Saladin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a pity that there is no real solution to the problem of terrorists. One can only hope that ultimately people will evolve to be more understanding of their neighbours and that xenophobia will diminish to almost nothing. Until then we will have to live with the inconveniences at airports and the much more significant internal spying of authorities on citizens.

Unfortunately, we will have to read in the papers of atrocities carried out by one group or other against unarmed people for some time to come. I can see no real effective solution.

Crusades Task Force icon

Crusades Task Force icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(I note that I have conflated “terrorist” with the fanatical Moslem activities that we have seen recently. Terrorists however come in all shapes and sizes, all religions. This was not intentional but shows how easy it is to slip into the habit of equating the one with the other).

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French tricolour flag, the "Tricolore"

French tricolour flag, the “Tricolore” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Terrorism. It’s a hard subject to discuss rationally, because the very essence of terrorism is to stir up emotion. Fear or terror in the populations being attacked. Exultation and joy in the terrorist organisation. Horror and disgust in those not directly affected.

It demonstrates the relativity of morality. From the point of view of the terrorists there is nothing wrong with targeting people in the streets because they are considered less than people for believing differently from the terrorist, and therefore deserve to die. From the point of view of everyone else, this is callous sickening nonsense.

US Navy 990913-N-1350W-004 Anti-terrorism Trai...

US Navy 990913-N-1350W-004 Anti-terrorism Training Washington, D.C (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An interesting argument which bring home this point is the contention that, in the Star Wars films, that the rebels, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Hans Solo and all the rest are simply terrorists and not freedom fighters at all. After all, they kill people, destroy property and cause mayhem. They consort with criminals, use violence and trickery to advance their cause.

Since we only see their side of the issue, can we be sure that the Empire is the evil entity that it is portrayed as? For all we know the Rebel Alliance may be causing untold damage within the Empire, and their support may only come from a few disaffected planets.

The Death Star in A New Hope

The Death Star in A New Hope (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, in the real world it is easy to see who the terrorists are. Targeting and killing innocent people who can’t fight back is a heinous crime and cannot be justified in any way. People who use their religion to try to justify such actions are not right in the head.

The religious bigots interpret the words of their holy book or books to justify such things as punishing women who have been raped, and stoning to death people who have been caught committing adultery.

Some would try to excuse terrorists by pointing out that all religions tend to lead to murder and torture, and this is so. Christians have raped, tortured and killed people who subscribe to other religions. Even sectarian disputes (such as that between the Christian Protestants and Christian Catholics) frequently lead to violence between the parties involved.

Some people use such facts to argue that religion causes its adherents to perform such violence against non-believers, but it is evident that adherents to mere ideologies will on occasion torture and kill non-adherents. Nazi Germany and Communist Russia are cases in point, but even the American military has been caught using torture on prisoners.

Water and rack in the torture museum in the Ca...

Water and rack in the torture museum in the Castle of the Counts, Ghent, Belgium: The victim is forced water and then stretched out. Useful knowledge for the CIA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Torture and killing, along with random bombing and shooting targeted at killing or maiming and inducing terror in a population is never justified. That’s as close to a moral absolute as there can be.

Is there something in the human psyche that makes us want to kill and harm others, perhaps. Certainly a fear of strangers is large part of our make up, especially if the stranger is large. The big guy with the leather and the tattoos may be only returning the keys which you dropped in the street, but that doesn’t help when he comes up to you.

At 77 East 3rd Street on April 19, 2009

At 77 East 3rd Street on April 19, 2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It doesn’t take much for fear to turn into violence, but that only helps a little with understanding terrorists. It is probably true that terrorists are scared of the religion or society that they are attacking. It is likely that they are incited by religious leaders who see others’ religions or beliefs as wrong, and that they believe that the end result of their actions will be rewards in the next world and the destruction of the “evil” that they are attacking.

The idea that you will die one day is scary to some people and the concept of an after-life is some consolation for that. In general religions tend to describe the after-life as like real life, but better. Or like real life, but worse, if you contravene any of the rules and laws of the religion. That’s a powerful incentive to follow the religion, and even if you can’t fully believe in God and the after-life, Pascal’s Wager suggests that it would be a good idea to try.

Bust of Blaise Pascal.

Bust of Blaise Pascal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Terrorists act as if they fully believe that their religion or belief is true, in an absolute sense. They act convinced that they are doing God’s work in blowing men, women and children to bits, not to mention maiming many more. They must truly believe that they are working for the greater good, and that is true of any extremist. I can’t help thinking that either the fanaticism has crowded out any common sense that they might possess or they are so fanatical because they want to squash a small amount of doubt which cannot be assuaged.

The difference between terrorist and rebels is that a rebellion mostly doesn’t bring God into it, though exceptions exist, and generally a rebel will do his/her utmost to avoid hurting those who are mere bystanders, but it is not a black and white thing. Suppose I told you that to save billions of people you would need to kill, say, a thousand people in cold blood? Most people would have a problem with that.

Cosplayers portraying Rebel Marksmen from Star...

Cosplayers portraying Rebel Marksmen from Star Wars at WonderCon 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an example of this sort of thing is the example of the Death Star II in Star Wars. When building something that size, the Empire would have had to have employed millions or even billions of people, depending on how far the building process could be automated. If we assume that most of them were neutral about the Empire/Alliance conflict, then they were, in the horrible phrase, collateral damage.

Obviously that’s a contrived example, but it is true, as someone once said “History is written by the winner” (variously attributed to many people). If the Empire eventually wins the Alliance will be reviled as traitors. If the Alliance wins, then the rebellion overthrew a corrupt and oppressive regime. The winning side’s acts will be whitened and the losing side’s acts will be blackened.

At 5:55 p.m. on December 24, 1964, Viet Cong t...

At 5:55 p.m. on December 24, 1964, Viet Cong terrorists exploded a bomb in the garage area underneath the Brinks Hotel in Saigon, South Vietnam. The hotel, housing 125 military and civilian guests, was being used as officers’ billets for U.S. Armed Forces in the Republic of Vietnam. Two Americans were killed, and 107 Americans, Vietnamese, and Australians were injured. Small buildings at the rear of the Brinks Hotel were completely destroyed by the force of the blast. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

None of the above should be seen as an apologia for the acts of the terrorists in Paris. In that case, the situation is as clear as it can be – these were terrible acts directed at those who were not able to defend themselves, who would have no idea that they should defend themselves. Who were murdered without warning, and mowed down without mercy, by people whose sick minds were harnessed by the sick terrorist organisation behind these crimes, to cause chaos, havoc and suffering. Terrorist pawns who were recruited from among the very people that they massacred.

English: A view of the Eiffel Tower, across th...

English: A view of the Eiffel Tower, across the Seine, from Avenue de New York. Français : La Tour Eiffel vue depuis l’Avenue de New-York, de l’autre coté de la Seine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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The muse

Hesiod and the Muse

Hesiod and the Muse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(Whoops! I forgot to post this on Monday, though I had finished it on Sunday)

My musings are generally thought up on the spur of the moment, as I’ve said before. Sometimes I get an idea a few days before I write my post, but sometimes it will come to me when I open WordPress and click on the “new post” link. Today’s post is inspired by a new television show that has just started here, about someone who writes a newspaper column. “Inspired” is too grand a word for it really – the TV show gave me the idea.

I’ve set myself a target of a thousand words per week. The writer in the TV series (called “800 Words“) has a column that is exactly 800 words long. He has just suffered a bereavement and decides to take his kids and relocate to a small town in New Zealand.

1000 words to the big crater (19)

1000 words to the big crater (19) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Naturally the kids don’t want to go, and when he gets to his new home, it’s only half built and it isn’t the house that he thought it was. On the trip to the new house he meets a bunch of eccentric locals and stumbles on the local nudist beach. So far, so standard sitcom. I’ll have to see how it goes, but it has apparently gone down well in Australia.

The interesting thing to me, for the purposes of this blog, is the 800 words thing. OK, I set myself a target of over 1000 words, and I generally don’t go many words over that, but to keep it to exactly 800 words seems a bit obsessive. The writer, as part of the continuity of the story, is seen typing his article, and the number of words is shown on the screen.

Now, I don’t (usually) take much notice of the structure of my blogs – I don’t do an intro, a body, and a wrap up, but I presume the writer does (or is supposed) as he is writing for a newspaper. That’s more complicated than what I do. I can imagine reaching around 900 words and realising that I need to do a wrap up in 100 words or so. Or worse, maybe, reaching 750 to 800 words and realising that you’ve covered your main points and the wrap up is going to have to be stretched to 200 to 250 words.

Of course he is a professional writer so such matters are his bread and butter. This brings me to another point. He gets paid for his column, and apparently gets paid enough to feed himself and his kids! This is slightly more than a little bit unbelievable, to say the least, as what he is shown writing amounts to not much more than a blog. If he writes 800 words a day, 5 days a week that amounts to 4,000 words, and his rate per word would have to be astronomical to keep him and his kids fed and watered.

The writers of the series have thrown in a few classic clichés in the first episode. There’s the end of the world cell phone coverage or lack of it. There’s the being swindled by the savvy locals, and there’s the saving the bad boy by hiding him from the cops thing. Oh well, perhaps things will get better. It’s not that bad a little show.

The writer in the show is inspired to write about all the things that are happening to him, so he has a ready source of material but my intent is not to make my blog anecdotal in that way. I might mention stuff in passing (like the Rugby World Cup. Yeah! All Blacks!) but in general I want my post to be like a bead necklace with beads on a wire, rather than a single long chain of interrelated links.

Cloisonne beads

Cloisonne beads (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, I will use the same themes repeatedly, such as science or maths or computing, just as a bead necklace generally has similar beads in many places but my intent is that each “bead” will stand alone.

I get messages from WordPress saying that so and so is now following my blog, but I don’t know what that really means. Does it mean that Mr Blobby is avidly waiting for my blog to come out and is disappointed if I am late? Probably not! But thank you for reading the blog, even if you only do it once. I do occasionally go and look at the blogs of those who are mentioned as following me and I may follow some of them.

Start of the Oracle Act

Start of the Oracle Act (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nevertheless, I write my posts with no specific reader in mind. By that I mean that I don’t visualise a person reading, which is odd, because that means that I send my words off into a vacuum. They must however sound good to me, as I write them, and if something that sounds awkward to me reaches the page, it gets altered.

Actually now I come to think about it, the “me” that writes the words seems to be different, or slightly separated from the “me” that does the reading, like Siamese twins in my head. It’s like a different aspect of myself.

"Head of a muse" by Raffaello Sanzio

“Head of a muse” by Raffaello Sanzio (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For me the actual process of writing goes like this. I form a sentence or part of a sentence in my head and start to type it. My reading self closely follows this process and notices any typos and mistakes and my writing self corrects them, but these things happen so fast and the two processes are so integrated that it seems seamless.

It’s like an ongoing game of ping pong in my head. One part of my mind says to type the word “the”. Another part tells the fingers what to do. I’m unaware or maybe unconscious of what this part is doing, and I specifically don’t think “move the fingers to the letter t and push”. So far as the conscious part of my mind is concerned it just happens.

The fingers move and the letters get typed. Another conscious part of my mind follows the letters that appear on the screen and passes off to an unconscious part the instructions to edit and retype. After a person has been writing for a while, it seems to your conscious mind that you think the words onto the screen.

Hmm, I’ve reached just over a 1000 words, so it is time to stop. I’ve shifted from talking about the muse and shifted to the mechanics. Either way the process is, as usual, more complex than it appears at first. I’ll have to think some more about how my words reach the page.

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A pain in the…

Regions of the cerebral cortex associated with...

Regions of the cerebral cortex associated with pain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everyone has experienced pain at some time, even it is caused by a simple knock or scratch. Many people have  experienced pain over the whole range from mild to excruciating. Of course it is impossible to know what another is experiencing so we compare pains by saying that a pain is like, for example, toothache, or that it is a stabbing pain.

We still don’t know exactly what others feel. As JLS sings “Do you feel what I feel?”. But we might have some idea, by comparison with our own experience. Another way that doctors use is to ask the patient to rate the pain on a scale of 1 to ten. as in this case the doctors can usually assess the type of pain. But they will sometimes ask if the pain is stabbing, pricking, aching, or whatever.

There is no doubt that pain, real pain, is an intense feeling. but our memories of pain that we have experienced seem curiously muted. If you think back to a time when you were injured, however, you will probably not be able to exactly how intense the experience was. I recall from somewhere that a mother, reflecting on the whole process of child-bearing said of the pain that if mothers could remember how it felt to give birth then it would be unlikely that there would be any second or third babies in a family.

Just as one remembers some life events and forgets others, seemingly at random, we may remember some injuries and forget others. I remember vividly scraping my skin on a rock which resulted in a nice scar, but I don’t remember the pain that I must have suffered when I received another scar, on my hand this time. It could of course simply be that the second injury happened decades before the first, and the memory of the pain may have simply faded. I think that there is more to it than that, though I don’t know what, exactly.

When a predator brings down its prey, say a lion captures a gazelle, it may often start to feed on the prey even though it might not yet be completely dead. This seems to us, today, to be cruel, but some people say that the prey doesn’t experience the pain as its brain switches off the pain and its consciousness, as a result of the shock. I’m not sure that this isn’t wishful thinking with nature thereby being thought of as “being kind” to the prey.

I put the scare quotes in there because it is gross anthropomorphism to say that. Nature is neither kind nor cruel. Also, on the rare occasion that a prey animal is accidentally freed by the predator, the prey will immediately try to escape, which it would not if it were stunned by the shock of its capture.

Nevertheless, there is something in the idea. People who have been stabbed or shot sometimes say that they thought that someone has hit them and that they were unaware that they had been stabbed or shot. This could be for a number of reasons. The nerves that affected by such puncturing wounds pain are mainly located on the surface of the skin, and a projectile or blade may affect only a few of them. When a person notices that they have been stabbed, they may suddenly experience the pain.

My experience backs this up. I have found that even a quite deep cut may not hurt until you notice it. A burn, however, is usually felt very quickly. In fact the body’s response to a burn is an almost immediate recoil.

Burn icon

Burn icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some pain, organ or visceral pain, happens deep inside the body. It’s the pain of appendicitis for example, or of gall bladder disease to name just two examples out of many. It may be difficult to tell which organ is affected as the pain may seem to be located in a different location from the affected organ. For instance in appendicitis the pain may start towards the middle of the abdomen rather than at the side where the appendix is located.

A different category of pain is mental pain. This is distinct from physical pain, though the two types may be linked as pain can affect the emotions, either directly through the autonomic nervous system, or indirectly through the sufferer’s physical restrictions caused by the pain, such as frustration, anxiety and other symptoms.

Mental pain is often likened to physical pain, as when grief is described in terms of physical pain and other symptoms. To someone who has suddenly been bereaved it often seems very much like a physical blow, and physical effects such as weight loss, nausea, sweating and feeling cold are all possible. I believe that mental pain can be as deeply felt as physical pain.

While we have pain killers for physical pain which can be targeted at specific symptoms and even organs, treatments for mental pain seem to me to be primitive in comparison. I need to add a disclaimer here, as I am not a medical practitioner nor have I experienced grief or other deep mental pain, so I simply do not know for sure if what I said above is true.

I do know that treatment for depression, which I suffer from now and then, appears to be effective, but there appear to be as many treatment and drugs as there are people suffering from the disease. Again, this is my non-medical view and I may be unaware of why there seem to be so many treatments for one condition. There may be reasons.

One other thing from my random stroll through the topic of pain – we seem to be able to feel things outside of our bodies. Amputees often report feeling itching and pain in their removed limbs or parts of limbs. This is known as “phantom pain“, and strangely it can be helped by superimposing an image of the patient’s intact limb over the absent or partial limb.

English: SAN DIEGO (June 13, 2011) Lynn Boulan...

English: SAN DIEGO (June 13, 2011) Lynn Boulanger, an occupational therapy assistant and certified hand therapist, uses mirror therapy to help address phantom pain for Marine Cpl. Anthony McDaniel. The Occupational Therapy department provides patients with rehabilitation services to heal and restore service members to their highest level of everyday functional outcomes. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Joseph A. Boomhower/Released) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The phantom limb pain obviously arises in the mind and the mirror trick fools the mind somehow into thinking that the limb is intact again. Of course, all pain is, fundamentally, in the mind, but apparently the mind can be fooled into firstly creating the phantom pain and secondly, into forgetting it, even though the patient knows that the limb has been damaged.

The reason for pain seems obvious – the body (or mind) is damaged in some way, and the pain is a signal that something needs to be done. But this simplistic answer doesn’t cover a lot of cases – the phantom pain of an amputated limb, for example. Nothing can be done about such pain, so why do we feel it? I think that I need to do some reading!

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Atoms versus Electrons

English: Underside of a DVD-R disc, modified t...

English: Underside of a DVD-R disc, modified to have transparent background. Français : Dessous d’un DVD (sur fond transparent) Frysk: DVD/dûbelskiif (Unterkant) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In “Being Digital” by Nicolas Negroponte, he touches in the Introduction on the irony of printing a physical book whose theme is the digital world and how we are moving holus bolus into it. Most human activities can be performed on line, and at the moment that we want to do them. We can watch a movie, do our banking and communicate face to face with others, and many other social things.

Nevertheless, there persists in many people a strong desire to do things the non-digital way. People go to the cinema to sit in uncomfortable seats, eat over expensive popcorn, to crane their necks at huge images on a vast screen and be blasted with a (usually) over loud sound track. They presumably return home, having breathed the same air and germs as dozens of others for a couple of hours, with ringing ears and throbbing heads.

The Westgarth Cinema, former home of the Valha...

The Westgarth Cinema, former home of the Valhalla, as it was in 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why? They could have caught the same movie while sitting in their own comfortable chairs at home, with the volume set to a comfortable level, eating whatever snacks they fancy, all without the hassles of driving to the cinema, finding and paying for parking, going through ticketing and most importantly, at a time of their own choosing.

Why indeed. Mostly I think that it is the sense of occasion, of doing something special, that drives us to visit cinemas and theatres. There is the excitement of getting up and going out there, being social, going to an actual cinema, buying and eating actual popcorn and ice blocks, sitting in a seat made damp and sticky by some previous customer, of being blasted out of one’s seat by the sound system and blinded by the brightness of the pictures on the screen.

English: The ancient (restored) theatre in Rho...

English: The ancient (restored) theatre in Rhodes, Acropolis, Greece. Français : Le théâtre antique (restauré) de Rhodes, sur l’Acropole. Grèce. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At one time it used to be that new movies would only released into cinemas, and they would then be circulated through the cinema chains, so you might wait, literally, years to see a particular movie. Less popular movies may not even have reached local cinemas if they did not make enough money.

While they were not a digital medium, video tapes started to erode the monopoly that the cinemas held. The local video store became an institution. Movies good or bad could be obtained locally, and the only restriction imposed by the movie companies was that tapes were not released for movies that were circulating in the cinemas.

English: Global, Chapel Place, Headingley. Loo...

English: Global, Chapel Place, Headingley. Looking north across North lane to Chapel Place. The video and DVD store was once Hufton’s grocers. Back then it housed 3 shops – see a picture from 1933 on (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, the movie companies could not keep new movies under wraps for too long before illegal copies of their “blockbusters” became available so the delay before movies reached local outlets were reduced. A new category of movies – “straight to video” – became common. These were movies which the movie studios made which did not warrant being released through the cinema chains.

Video technology proved to be a mostly transient phenomenon. DVD and later Blue Ray technology was developed and this was true digital technology. A movie could be pressed onto one or two disks, and sound and video quality was hugely improved over both cinema and video tape technology. The era of the “Home Theatre” was born.

Both video tapes and DVDs were susceptible to copying. This causes huge issues for the movie studios as, from their point of view, a DVD copied is one less DVD sold, and thus copying was, in their view, cutting into their profits. As a result, the DVD producers started encrypting their products, but of course they needed to let their customers view the DVDs that they have purchased.

It is likely that this encryption, plus the threat of prosecution for illegal copying deterred many people from casual copying, but a small minority are determined to circumvent such barriers, which they saw as preventing them from doing “legitimate” copying, for example for backup purposes. When a single game may cost more than $100, and a single scratch could render the disk useless, they argue that a backup of the DVD is essential.

One of Negroponte’s main points was that we are switching from transporting physical objects (atoms) to transferring only digital data (bits), and piracy is a case in point. It is easy to transfer the contents of a DVD if you can decrypt it and copying is merely the matter of a couple of clicks. Pirated (or decrypted) games will circulate on the Internet within hours of their release.

On the other hand, some enterprising software firms actually distribute their software on the Internet for anyone to download. All that you have to do is pay for the key to decrypt it. Others have found that if you allow someone to play a game, that if they like it enough they will pay for boost and assists as they play the game. These are known as “in app purchases” and are common in phone and tablet app downloaded for free.

Much the same applies in the world of books. Most books are available in digital or ebook form and some people download thousands of free or decrypted ebooks are store them on their handheld devices. It makes me wonder if they are even going to read any of them, as I have about half a dozen books that I have downloaded which I haven’t got around to reading yet. Maybe this is a collector passion and not bibliophilia as such!

Some people do get a lot of pleasure from reading real books. They love the heft, the smell, the texture of a real book and this love of physical books may fade as people get used to reading on a screen, until, one day perhaps, real books will seem quaint and old-fashioned, just cinemas and theatres are tending to become.

English: Stack of books in Gould's Book Arcade...

English: Stack of books in Gould’s Book Arcade, Newtown, New South Wales (NSW), Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like the digital media, especially the subset of digital media that I can store on my computers. I like being able to watch what I want when I want to watch it. I like the easy portability of digital media. Although I can see the attraction of watching Robbie Williams or Lady Gaga in the flesh, I’ll pass on that and maybe watch them on YouTube instead, where I can watch their performance virtually, with clarity, with good sound. The mosh pit can have it to themselves!

Robbie Williams concert

Robbie Williams concert (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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English: Feathers and wedges are being used to...

English: Feathers and wedges are being used to split a large slab of sandstone. A three pound sledge hammer is being used to drive the wedges into holes drilled in the stone. The crack is just visible as a ragged line connecting the holes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Trust me, I know what I’m doing”. Sledge Hammer’s famous line encapsulates many things about trust in its seven words. The ironic twist is that the first iconic series ends with Hammer saying the words as he tries to dismantle an atomic bomb. He is not successful!

Trust is a belief that the person or thing that is trusted can be relied upon to do what is promised. There is trust between you and the bank. You trust them to look after the money that you hand over to them to invest and maybe pay you some interest. You also trust them to give you the money back when you request it. There may be conditions on the investment, such as minimum deposit periods or maximum withdrawals, interest rates and so on, but fundamentally you can get you money back.

California Bank & Trust Building in LA

California Bank & Trust Building in LA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Similarly the bank may loan you money, under conditions, which you can use to purchase a house, or a boat, or for any other reasons. They trust you to pay back the loan sooner or later, together with interest, and have the right to pursue you through the law if you don’t repay it.

The money in your pocket requires you to trust in it. After all the value of ordinary coins and notes in terms of the metal and paper is negligible, although gold sovereigns are nowadays worth much more than their nominal one pound sterling. Every coin or note represents something much more nebulous than the distinct coins and notes. Early notes had a “promise to pay” written on them, with the signature of a financial authority to encourage people to trust in them as money.

English: .

English: . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hammer’s exhortation implies that his companions don’t trust him, which is ironic because, in a back-handed, gun-related way, he usually did. As is evidenced by the way that he encouraged a suicidal jumper to abandon his intents by shooting chunks out of the ledge that the jumper was standing on. His companions’ distrust was related to the non-standard way that he approached problems and their prior knowledge of his previous actions in such circumstances.

As in Hammer’s case, when two or more people interact, they need to trust each other in many ways. Threats are promises of harm, and there may be promises of benefits. Two people may form an alliance against a joint threat, and in such a case they need to trust each other. Each one trusts the other to back them up.

English: Toronto: TD Canada Trust Tower

English: Toronto: TD Canada Trust Tower (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Often conditions are written down in the form of a contract. All the things that are expected by both parties, that are promised by both parties, or as many of them as can be, are written down, and both parties make their mark or sign the document. The contract can be authorised by a third-party or each party may merely carry away a copy of the document.

A contract strengthens the trust between two parties. If a contract in place, goes the reasoning, then all parties know exactly what is required of them, and what the consequences are if one party or another doesn’t do what is required. If there is complete trust between two parties, then no contract would be required, of course, but there never is complete trust.

However we trust other people all the time without contracts or other documentation. In fact we are sometimes too trusting. Sometimes nefarious characters arrive on our doorsteps and we let them in if they, for example, claim to be from the Gas Board. It is recommended that we always ask for proof of identity if someone who we don’t know knocks on the door. Of course we have to trust the proof of identification if any is proffered, and it could conceivably be faked.

This brings up and issue about trust – we can never be absolutely sure that we can trust someone. We could know someone very very well and still not be absolutely sure that we can completely trust them. The extent to which we cannot completely trust them may be very very small of course.

English: Wikibarn of Vardan Mamikonyan for con...

English: Wikibarn of Vardan Mamikonyan for contribution to clauses of Armenian hictory Русский: Викиорден Вардана Мамиконяна за вклад в статьи по истории Армении (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We cannot even completely trust someone when we have a contract with them. Unexpected occurrences may occur which are not covered by the contract, but relate the the matter that the contract covers. If one of the parties to the contract dies then what happens to the provisions of the contract? Well, there are laws, of course, that relate to contractual matters and it may be that lawyers are needed to sort such matters out.

There’s another sort of trust, other than trust between people. We trust the laws of science. If we throw something up into the air we expect it to come down again. We expect and trust that the sun will come up tomorrow, and it appears that we are justified in our trust. Through many millennia we have trusted that the whole is a sensible logical place where everything has a cause and cause and effect go hand in hand.

There is a dissenting voice and that voice is the voice of religion. Religions espouse the concert of miracles, that is occasions when the laws of nature are violated, as for instance, water is changed to wine, or a flood covers and destroys the whole earth.

We may trust that the world is a logical place, but we cannot prove that it is. If we keep throwing stones into the air, it is conceivable that one might not come down again. While we can verify that throwing stones into the continues to work, we may for some reason experience a case where the stone does not fall to the ground again.

If the stone doesn’t come down, our instinct is to look for a reason why it did not, rather than suspect that the law of gravity has been repealed. We trust the law of gravity. The stone may have lodged on a roof of course, or been caught by a passing bird. After we have considered all the possibilities then we might suspect that the law of gravity as we know it has failed.

So we pass it over to the physicists to look into the matter, and they would ponder and experiment, and eventually, we hope come up with a modification to the law of gravity to cover our “special case”. And we can trust the law of gravity again. For now.

Animation showing the motion of a small body (...

Animation showing the motion of a small body (green) in an elliptic orbit around a much more massive body (blue). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, the question arises, when we have found out all that there is to know about the Universe and so be able to predict anything with 100% accuracy. Well, suppose our knowledge of the laws of the Universe is 80% accurate. There’s an old adage that says that the first 80% of anything takes 80% of the time, and the remaining 20% also takes 80% of the time. In other words it is feasible that we could know all the laws of the universe and be able to apply them, but there probably isn’t enough time.

In the meantime, I’m going to trust that the sun is going to come up tomorrow, as, after all 80% is still pretty good!

English: Bình Minh biển Cửa Lò

English: Bình Minh biển Cửa Lò (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Why Philosophers are Never Asked to Parties

The philosopher went to a party. He grabbed a drink and looked around. After a while he looked around again and started to frown. His host came up to him and asked him why he was looking puzzled. The philosopher replied that he wasn’t sure that he was at a party.

The host looked around and everyone was chatting, drinking and eating or dancing. Music was playing and the lights had been dimmed. The host asked him why he wasn’t sure, and the philosopher replied that, while it appeared that he was at a party, he couldn’t be sure that he was, because it could be that, in spite of appearances, he wasn’t at a party and that all the people here could be merely pretending that it was a party.

English: Saul Kripke (philosopher) on juquehy ...

English: Saul Kripke (philosopher) on juquehy beach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, if he asked anyone, they would say that it was a party, but they would say that whether or not it really was a party. When the host asked why anyone would go to the trouble to set up a fake party, he stated that he didn’t know, but if he could determine that it was a fake party, then that would be the next question. If it proved to be a real party then he could relax and enjoy himself. At this point that the philosopher found himself alone, as his host had left him to his musings.

There’s a saying that “if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck”. This saying satisfies most people most of the time, but (philosophers aside) doesn’t satisfy everyone, all of the time.

Black-Bellied Whistling Duck, Birding Center, ...

Black-Bellied Whistling Duck, Birding Center, Port Aransas, Texas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When a top politician is replaced mid-term, the person who replaces him or her often showers praise on him or her, and states how much the party is in debt to the “retiring” politician, who may be stepping down to “spend more time with family”, most people would recognise this for what it is, a political coup. Few would believe that the top politician wanted to resign and that he or she really had a choice.

In this case the metaphorical bird is most likely a turkey, but everyone insists that it is a duck. Even though it doesn’t look like a duck and doesn’t quack like a duck, and doesn’t even walk like a duck.

English: a male and female domestic turkey

English: a male and female domestic turkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s pretty easy for us to detect the coup for what it is and mostly the media will report it as a coup, but the sceptical philosopher has no easy way to determine if he should relax and enjoy himself or go home. He knows about the political coup and sees this happen fairly often. Something happens and it is presented in one way, and everyone knows that this “duck” is not in fact a duck. So, why could not the same be true about the party?

The basic question that underlies the philosopher’s dilemma is “How do we know what we know?”, which a branch of philosophy that philosophers call “Epistemology“. When we read in the papers that a top politician has stepped down, or we go to a party, most people are quite aware of what is going on. We base our awareness on previous knowledge of prior political coups and previous parties.

English: Cartoon expression of Frank Jackson's...

English: Cartoon expression of Frank Jackson’s knowledge argument. One of the popular thought-experiment discussed in philosophers of mind. 日本語: 心の哲学における有名な思考実験。マリーの部屋。 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are quite happy to apply the negative (he didn’t really want to resign) and the positive (it’s a great party!) to these situations based on experience. The philosopher can’t do that, as this leads to the “problem of induction”. Maybe in the last three coups the politician didn’t want to resign, and maybe the last three gatherings were in fact parties, but this time it may be different and the philosopher has the problem of knowing one way or the other.

Well, actually the philosopher has the problem of needing to know one way or the other. A true philosopher is a sceptical about everything he sees or hears or otherwise experiences, but there is a fundamental problem with the issue of “knowing”.

English: Knowledge, mural by Robert Lewis Reid...

English: Knowledge, mural by Robert Lewis Reid. Second Floor, North Corridor. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Caption underneath reads: IGNORANCE IS THE CVRSE OF GOD KNOWLEDGE IS THE WING WHEREWITH WE FLY TO HEAVEN. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you tell a philosopher that the sun will rise tomorrow, he or she may ask you how you know it will. If you reply that you know it because the sun came up yesterday, and the day before and the day before that, the philosopher will question how you know that what happened in the past will happen will happen in the future. He will point out that if you toss a coin and it turns up heads three times in a row, that it doesn’t mean that it will turn up heads the next time it is tossed. It’s a 50:50 chance that that it will come up tails.

If you then appeal to science the philosopher can point out that science is built on theories and experiments to disprove them. No experiment can prove a theory as such because you can do as many experiments as you like which turn out to agree with the theory and the philosopher can suggest that one more experiment might disprove the theory, and if it does, bang goes the theory.

Electrolysis experiment

Electrolysis experiment (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Actually, if a theory is any good, then it won’t be completely destroyed by an experiment that goes against the theory. No, it is more likely that the theory is patched up to take account of the errant data, and the process goes on. Also if the theory is any good any experiment which contradicts it is likely to happen at the extremes of the domain of the theory, and it can be usefully used for the vast majority of cases that don’t occur in those extremes.

What about the philosopher at the party? He can prove one way or another that the gathering is really a party, and not something else. His host has a couple of options at least. Firstly he can suggest that the philosopher takes it as a working hypothesis that it really is a party. Then he can take part, and if he enjoys himself, that doesn’t disprove the working hypothesis. Secondly the host can find another philosopher and introduce the two, who can then jointly discuss the validity of the hypothesis (that it is a real party).

Faith Happens

Faith Happens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Or thirdly, he can avoid asking a philosopher to any of his parties.


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