Archive for April, 2008

when faced with ethical ickiness

April 16th, 2008

And by ickiness I mean a question that you don't have the answer to, but you nevertheless have a gut feeling one way or the other. For instance: should gay couples be allowed to adopt? Another example would be: should it be permitted to clone humans? Or how about the old favorite: should sex play in kinder garden be encouraged (which I have absolutely no answer to)?

These are questions which have no prior answer, because we've only just been faced with them for the first time (or for that matter, only now been willing to consider them). There are many questions like this which have no answer (yet), but which nevertheless raise a certain instinctive feeling in us that makes us prone to lean to one side. This icky feeling is a fear within us that "something bad will happen" if this new thing is allowed to happen, without knowing what we really are scared of.

Many such questions have received answers in the past. For example the question of whether a brother and sister should be allowed to marry has been settled on the basis that children of such parents are born with serious deformities. Therefore we have a rational answer, not merely a fear.

What not to do: alternative A

Do not take your unarticulated fear to draw the conclusion that your instinct must be correct, and therefore suggest banning or condemning the practice. This is a purely emotional response with no rational justification.

Do not further aim to strengthen your argument by associating yourself with a large group of people who share your unarticulated fear and has decided to "do something about it". The ignorance of a thousand is no more equivalent to wisdom than the fact that the sun is the center of our solar system was discovered by popular opinion.

Those who would rather pretend that certain new possibilities were never discovered will desire to ban these, so that we can go back to believing these things are not possible. And if it is banned, no one will be doing it, so we can live in this illusion we've created for ourselves.

What to do: alternative B

Resign yourself to the fact that certain questions have no answer at the moment, and that at any given time there will always be such questions. Your pretty little head will resist this, because this makes certain things undecidable. But it is nevertheless the quickest path to happiness, as you will soon see.

What to do: alternative C

Pursue the answer intellectually, and aggressively. Read up on the science that is happening in this field and the discourse that is taking place between interested parties. Once you go in depth you will begin to understand not just the issue, but also your own fear and what it really is you're worried about. This will then prevent you from choosing the emotional answer of alternative A, because you will no longer be able to convince yourself that a rational answer is optional.

The final, undisputed answer to certain questions may not come for a long time, not even in the span of your lifetime. But with every step that you veer closer to the truth you will have a better idea of what it's likely to be. Until the truth is actually discovered, you will regularly find yourself faced with alternative B.

book signings - are they utterly stupid?

April 13th, 2008

So it turns out that authors have "book tours" (yeah, it sounds crazy, doesn't it?). You would think that everything they had to say was already in the book, but they do this to sell more books. They go around to various cities and they talk about their book and sometimes participate in panel discussions with other authors.

An integral part of this is the book signing. Now suppose you read a book that was very good and you really appreciate the ideas of this person and their ability to express them in such a way that they have. What benefit do you possibly see in having it signed by the author? First of all, their name is already on the book (the cover, in fact), so it's redundant. So what do you benefit from knowing that this person wrote their name on this paper? What difference does it make?

It's stupid celebrity worship every day of the week. I can sort of understand more how people ask sportsmen for autographs, because when you meet an athlete then you don't really have anything "of theirs" to keep. So even an autograph (which again is meaningless, who cares about the calligraphic skills of a sportsman? that's not what you admire them for) is something. With an author this is turned on its head, because the item being signed is the very work that you appreciate, so you already _have_ their best output in your hand.

the original bloggers

April 1st, 2008

There is no real definition of blogging. When no one is telling you how many inches you have to fill and by what time, then you can use as much or as little time as you like, to write as long or as short as you like. Blogging is essentially the ultimate freedom of expression, since there are no constraints. It is therefore not possible to define what a blog is from some manual. The only way is to observe how blogs are written and see whether there is a certain style that is more common than others. And there is one. The most common style of blogging is reminiscent of one principle from the open source method: release early, release often. Most blogs are relatively short and don't try to take on many arguments. Which is why they are also not too hard to write. You can limit your scope to a small and comfortable size.

Of course, blogs are a relatively new thing. A lot of people now have a voice who prior to blogging didn't have a suitable channel. But there is one group of people whose blogging predates the internet era. They have been doing it for centuries, albeit not always with the same level of freedom that we do, and sometimes under great pressure. What they have on us, however, is an audience.

If you're not familiar with how Catholic Mass works, it's a bit like a tv show. The introductory clip and the credits are always the same, the commercials always come at the same time and that defines the structure. You say the same words, you sing the same songs. For some parts you sit, for some you stand, for some you kneel. Then there is the content portion which changes depending on the Catholic calendar. But this too is completely scripted and if you come back on the same day next year, you'll hear the same thing. The highlight of the Mass is a two piece segment. First comes the Gospel, and for this you have to stand, unfortunately. This is a reading from the New Testament (boy they should give them more books to choose from) selected by the priest. Then comes the blog, or sometimes called "the sermon".

The sermon is a relief, as you can finally sit down. It's also a long segment, which means you can doze off a bit. Once when I was a kid I was so bored during the sermon that I actually fell asleep, hit my head on the bench in front of me. Whether you're a sinner or not, Sunday Mass is like your weekly purgatory. Getting out of going used to be my highest priority goal. One loophole is to attend Mass on a weekday, because the sermon is only given on Sundays, which makes Mass half an hour instead of an hour. You can then do away with your weekly guilt trip and on paper you're clean.

Anyway, now that I look back on it, the blog is actually the only part of the Mass that I would keep today. Certainly the only part that might be interesting to non-Catholics. It's basically a blog being read to you. The extent to which this is interesting depends on how smart your priest is. And a lot of priests are smart. I don't know if that's a qualification, but if you had a very dim individual, the people in the audience (especially the smarter ones) wouldn't want to listen to his drivel and would go to another church.

The blog is unique in the Mass in that it's a complete freestyle event. And priests are typically so bored with all the rituals that they embrace this opportunity to talk about something of their own choosing. This is the only time you'll hear the priest talk to you in his own words. In the church that I used to go to, the blogs were exclusively uplifting messages and had no religious content in them. They would generally be stories and anecdotes about people that would make you think, and whose message was to be a nice person and treat people nicely. It's really quite a nice thing to do, fill people every week with a good spirit, and a positive outlook. As I got older, and not long before I decided that I had done enough church going for one life, I started to appreciate the blogs a lot. I felt they had a positive influence on me, just as I gradually felt less and less attached to the church. In fact, some people consider this Sunday blogging on equal terms with reading a good book or watching a good movie. It gives you something to think about. In fact, a few have taken it so far as to occasionally wander into a Protestant church (naughty!) thinking the blog there might be more interesting.

So these guys (Catholic church is very conservative, no women priests. Protestants have them, though) have a real tradition for blogging that goes back a long time. Priests have been up there every Sunday (good thing Mass on weekdays doesn't have it, or they'd have to write a new blog every day, although many current blogging 'experts' recommend this) carrying that torch. As a matter of fact, since they are just blogs, they could just as well be posted online as well. I don't know if anyone is doing this, but it would be nice to share that creativity with the rest of the world. And it would allow the audience to post comments, something that is frowned upon in church (what did you say about the man who had an accident? that didn't really make sense).

What's interesting is that we have now started doing the same thing that they have been doing all these years. And I don't think we really intended to imitate, did we? Think about how cool it would be to do a guest blog in church. :cool: