21 December 2009

When Darwin meets Smith

The Great Recession has discredited the once-irreproachable efficient-markets hypothesis (EMH). It turns out after all that markets do not present all available information, that investors and consumers are not always rational agents, and that prices fluctuate with alarming frequency and wide variation. In the ‘Issues 2010’ special edition of Newsweek, Barrett Sheridan ('Markets are like people') reports on a proposed alternative to the EMH; the adaptive-markets hypothesis (AMH). This idea’s foremost proponent is MIT economist Andrew Lo, who has set out to repair the now-obvious flaws of the EMH using the findings of behavioural economics. More specifically, Lo wants to introduce Adam Smith to Charles Darwin.

28 November 2009

Cartoon kid porn: evil pedophilia or victimless crime?

Earlier this month, the Arkansas Supreme Court sentenced thirty-five year old John McEwen to two years jail for the crime of possessing images depicting cartoon children engaged in sexual acts. McEwen’s sentencing sparked an internet protest movement, with supporters calling the sentence ‘draconian’ and demanding that it be repealed. Peter van Bruen, a civil rights lawyer and one of the founders of the movement, is here today to explain why he and many others oppose the Supreme Court’s verdict.

Good morning, Mr van Bruen.

Good morning.

07 October 2009

A collection of rants, being the Third of several

* * *

Beware false dichotomies: body versus spirit, doing versus being, idealism versus pragmatism, appearance versus character, emotion versus reason. These pairings are not mutually exclusive. Both concepts can be reconciled within the one human being. We are not meant to be cut in two with the above false dichotomies; we are made whole with the pairings in harmony, not opposition.

Body and spirit complement and reinforce each other. ‘Doing’ any action with focus and mindfulness is synonymous with ‘Being’. Idealism is pragmatic, if achieving the good is the primary goal of one’s practical efforts. Beautiful appearances and beautiful character can be found and nurtured in the same person. Emotion, far from being the antithesis of reason, is simply a neutral tool that reason can use to one’s benefit. Destructive emotions flow from reason’s poor command, while life-enhancing feelings are reinforced through the rigorous exercise of one’s rational mind.


28 September 2009

A collection of rants, being the Second of several

More ire and fire, this time dated to the day and month.

* * *

To be authentic is to steadfastly hold on to one’s rational values regardless of their popularity or lack thereof. The intelligent person of integrity will not compromise his morality – that is, a code of ethics derived from objective reality through the use of his reason – for the crude purpose of obtaining approval or validation, even from those whom he holds in esteem and affection.

Indeed this kind of authenticity requires great moral and intellectual courage, and can at times reinforce the sense of loneliness often felt by the independent thinker.


26 September 2009

A collection of rants, being the First of several

Here, dear reader, are reproduced for your amusement (and, dare I hope, your edification) a selection of mini-essays penned in my early youth upon the delightfully tactile rough cream paper of handmade notebooks. In those days my zeal burned hotter, undiluted by a cool, objective distance from my subject matter. It was a time when I mistook repetitiveness for assertiveness, hectoring for arguing, moralism for morality. The somewhat screeching tone of these essays does embarrass me now, though many of the principles held forth still retain my loyalty and devotion. Those were impetuous days when I was more likely to be scratching out early drafts with a pen rather than tapping them out straight-to-keyboard as I currently do (my romantic pretensions evaporated long ago). I would like to think that I have mellowed since then. Old age does that to you.

This first collection of essays was presumably written in early/mid 2007. I didn’t start dating my essays until late 2007, when I decided that it would be useful to have a record of the progress and evolution of both my writing style/technique and my ideas. The essays are presented in chronological order – that is, in the order of when I wrote them in my notebooks.

25 September 2009

On thinking well and the scientific method of acquiring knowledge

I have little mechanical aptitude. The extent of my skills stretch as far as putting back on a naughty bicycle chain that has taken leave of its chaperoning gear. Even then the necessary sequence of – for me, awkward – actions takes me a good five minutes. Clearly I have long ago diverged from that evolutionary branch of the hominid family tree which eventually produced the grease monkey. Still, I admire the rigour that mechanics and engineers apply to the performance of their craft, especially if it is in a high stress, high stakes context. Like aircraft construction and maintenance, for example. One misplaced part, one malfunctioning component, one small structural flaw, and the chances of catastrophe fatally increase.

If only we would apply similarly exacting standards of attention and discipline to our thought processes.

28 August 2009

List of things to do

  1. Exercise justified pride, never false modesty.

  2. Realise that solipsism is the most intellectually honest position one can hold with any certainty.

  3. Be capricious but authentic, rather than dependable but insincere.

  4. Put on your finest clothes, and leave others to project their hopes, fears and secret longings onto your appearance. You shall be their mirror, though they may hate you for what you reveal of them.

  5. Avoid presumption. Stick to the facts.

  6. Reject euphemisms that aim to deceive, obscure and confuse.

  7. Carefully evaluate all memes that your brain absorbs.

  8. Recognise nonsense and ugliness whenever you encounter them. Despite relativist, postmodern pretension, such things do exist, as do their opposites – knowledge and beauty.

  9. Carry a sharp blade to place in your critics’ hands, which they may use to cut your throat if only they had the courage of their pathetic convictions to do so.

  10. Be kind, generous and brave.

  11. Ignore all who are cruel, mean and cowardly.

  12. Take care of your psychology.

  13. Tell someone they’re beautiful.

  14. Eat good quality chocolate. Anything Belgian will do nicely.

  15. Do not hesitate to physically destroy anyone who would harm you or another. Let not only the Orcs be strong.

  16. Watch good quality porn. Anything Belgian will do nicely.


19 June 2009


There’s no hope
For me now, boy
To me now, boy
It’s all just
Dopamine, serotonin

But on that night
Nothing but
Tumeric, aniseed
Clove, lime, mint
Chilli, my cool sweat
And an idle waitress
On a quiet shift

So she sat down
Across from
The only customer
How deliciously
She hopes that
The boss doesn’t see

“Would you like
To come back with me
To old Penang town?”
Her warm, bold
That supple, smiling

I should have said “Yes”
All those forty-eight
Years ago
Before I learned
Too much about love
And its chemical


The brain revolution

We are getting smarter. And the technology our intelligence has created is accelerating the process. Whether through external prostheses like computers and the internet, or internal amplifiers like cognition-augmenting drugs, we now have the means to immediately improve our mental powers. The definition of ‘intelligence’ is changing: it’s going to be less about how much knowledge your brain stores and more about how proficient that brain is in acquiring information and processing it for a particular purpose. To that end, current brain-enhancing technologies, whether external or internal, are the harbingers of homo novus; the New Man. With the aid of external technologies at least, we will become less dependent on having to memorize gigabytes of facts and figures when such information is just a point-and-click away.

11 June 2009

When it rains, it pours

“Do you believe in God?”

He came on the train at Sunshine and sat next to me, the elderly gentleman. He was polite, thanking me for removing my bag from the seat next to me so he could sit. I was just tucking into a meaty dialogue on Holocaust denialism in April’s Standpoint when he asked what I was reading. I flipped to the cover with a caricature of Pope Benedict the Sixteenth and gave the gentleman a brief rundown on the rag: Cultural and political magazine. UK publication. Monthly circulation. Conservative bias. Pithy writing. Pretty pictures.

Just as I was about to elaborate on the various ways the rag edified me, he popped the question.

Something that gave me a good laugh

A man walks into a pub in Vladivostok and orders a black coffee. Suddenly, a gorilla bursts in, grabs the coffee, washes his balls in it and storms out. Quite shocked, the man asks the waiter: 'Mister, do you know why gorilla wash balls in my coffee?' The waiter can't answer, so the man demands to see the manager who has no explanation either, but tells him to talk to the band playing the joint as they have experience in such matters. So the man asks the band-leader: 'Mister, do you know why gorilla wash balls in my coffee?' 'No,' the musician responds, 'but if you hum a few bars, I'm sure we can play it.'

[As recounted by Jan Verwoert in 'frieze' magazine, who was told the joke by Boris Ondreicka. Verwoert wrote "It changed my life."]


You are bleeding.
…I was attacked, on my way up here. But I fought them off.
How many of them were there?
Three. No, four, but the fourth one just hung back. He looked no more than a boy.
Three attackers? Either you are stronger than you look, or they were particularly averse to pain.
Are you Khem?
I am Khem.
You… don’t speak like your countrymen. Certainly don’t sound like the man I was told I would find up here.
Hah! Do not let my appearance fool you. I may look like one of your Western caricatures of the exotic Other, the brownskin who summons spirits and believes in supernatural powers, in beneficent gods and malicious demons. I am not that.
I was told that you're a master of the fighting arts. That’s all that matters to me.
The fighting arts? Then you heard wrong. I know nothing of the fighting arts. But if it is the fighting sciences you care to learn, now that I know a little of.
Are you playing word games now? Is this one of your tests?
I do not play games, young man. I meant precisely what I said. If you want to learn how to harness your ‘chi’, or build up your ‘fighting spirit’, or execute the ‘death touch’, or any other such esoteric excrement, there is a fair glut of ‘masters’ of such nonsense who are only too keen to poison your mind so that they may maintain the illusion of being possessors of rarified knowledge.
I… I don’t quite follow you. So you don’t believe in ‘chi’?
I do not believe in anything that is not supported by evidence. I do not believe in ‘chi’, I believe in neuropsychology. I do not believe in ‘martial art traditions’, I believe in anatomy and biomechanics. I do not believe in the supernatural, I believe in the empirical laws of the universe. The laws of physics. Of biology. Of all that is measurable, quantifiable and reproducible. Are you following me now?
Yes... Yes, I am.
Good, you show promise. If you wish to learn the science of combat, I will teach you how to apply the principles of biomechanics and physics to break an opponent’s limbs in thirteen different ways. I will show you how to read his thoughts through his body language. I will instruct you in human physiology, how to manipulate, damage and even repair the human body. I will introduce you to psychological techniques that can be used to increase your fighting ability while decreasing your opponent’s. I will demonstrate how you can leverage biological facts to your advantage when facing a larger enemy, or when fighting in a hostile environment. You will learn the chemical properties of blood, sweat and tears, and not just shed them in a tired cliché. If all this is what you wish to learn, then I shall teach you.
I want to learn everything you care to teach me. Everything.
You are a hungry animal, who has been stalking after knowledge for some time now, all for a specific purpose. Am I correct?
…You're correct.
You will learn that the skills you seek need not be paranormal in order for them to serve your purpose. And that a rational mind is your most powerful weapon. What is your name?
My parents named me Bruce.
And your parents, they are dead?
You wonder how I know this, yet you wear your grief like a black cloak. You think to avenge them, yes? That is why you are here, to learn how to punish their killers.
I’m here to learn how to protect others from people like my parents’ killer. To make sure that what happened to me doesn’t happen to another chil- …another person.
Hah! How generous of you, Bruce. You think to transmogrify your personal tragedy into a righteous one-man crusade against the forces of darkness.
Will you teach me or not?
I will teach you, but not with that name you carry. If you are to become my student, you will die to your past. Though I cannot force you to forget the life you had up until this moment, you will not bear any mark from that time while you are here. Not even the name your parents gave you.
Then why did you ask for my name in the first place?
I was curious. You... intrigue me.
Whatever. I don’t care.
Yet you must have a name. I cannot just call you ‘boy’ now, can I? It may not grate on your pride, but it would on mine.
Then what do you propose to call me?
Hmmm… your grief shall name you. So long as you are my student, you are Karam.
Yes, for you have black wings. Now, let me see to your wounds.


25 May 2009

Ass kicks elephant: the failure of GOP ideology

Is the American Republican Party slowly sliding into political irrelevance? It’s ironic that the nation which founded the Pragmatist school of philosophy in the 19th century should have a major party that prizes evergreen theories over prosaic, practical outcomes. When it came to determining ‘truth’ values, American Pragmatists like John Dewey believed that it wasn’t an issue of theory versus practice but rather of “intelligent practice versus uninformed, stupid practice”. And to exercise the former one must be committed to facts and figures, even if - and especially when - they do not give us the news we want.

04 May 2009

Life is meaningless (but that's OK)

In her article ‘Purpose, Meaning and Darwinism’ published in the January/February 2009 issue of Philosophy Now magazine, Dr Mary Midgley insists that, contrary to certain interpretations of Darwin’s theory of natural selection that paint biological history as a purposeless, random process, there is indeed meaning and purpose to life. And Midgley isn’t just saying that life has meaning from a human perspective. No, she believes that all of existence has an intrinsic purpose, and that “purposiveness is not a peculiarly human trait… it is one we share with many other animals.” Purposiveness – as defined by Midgley – is “persistent, systematic striving till a particular end is achieved.” Therefore, a person, animal or even a plant demonstrates purposiveness when striving to reach a specific goal, whether gaining a job promotion, escaping from a trap or (as Midgley provides as an example) in the case of seeds, growing around and through paving stones, “lift[ing] them out of place, if necessary.”

Customized love, designed devotion

Imagine a future society where artificial intelligence (AI) and cybernetics are sophisticated enough to allow the creation of artificial humans with organic bodies. The definitive difference between them and ‘real’ people is that these artificial humans are manufactured rather than being sexually conceived. Other than that, they are almost indistinguishable from ‘real’ humans.

The post-theological age

Bring on the post-theological age!

Theological inquiry may have been the natural next step forward from our pre-theological past, when our remote ancestors were not intellectually developed enough to ask the big questions about life, the universe and everything (and lacked the sense of humour that would have found the answer ‘Forty-two’ a ticklish one). Yet terrible signs throughout history warn us that theology, with its attendant superstitions and myths, has long since become irrelevant, even destructive, to human hopes and endeavours towards a better future.

To speak of a post-theological era of civilization is to speak of a future filled with optimism, courage, curiosity, freedom, prosperity and intellectual achievement. It is especially optimism that prompts me to declare that the post-theological age is inevitable, for it is the natural next step forward from the current theological age. The twin forces of secularism and scientific progress are gaining a widening influence around the world, displacing theocracies and false traditions. Humanity will not believe in gods forever. As a child eventually outgrows his need for irrational comforts from supernatural fears, so too will humanity emerge from its ‘self-imposed immaturity’ by discarding outmoded beliefs in preference for rational, liberal and humane convictions.

Reason, compassion and unfettered imagination will infuse all human action and thought, lighting the darkness of both the internal sphere of the human character and the external realm of unexplored space.


"Hey, we're on the same side here."

Today I read these words by Ayn Rand and they struck me with a clarity forceful enough to disperse foggy ideology:

If [former US Republican senator] Barry Goldwater advocates the right principles for the wrong metaphysical reasons, the contradiction is his problem, not ours.

I now understand that it is overzealous and unfair of me to insist that those who share my acceptance of true and good principles should also support the philosophical foundations those principles were built on. While metaphysical and epistemological foundations remain important, the fact that an ally in principle does not embrace such foundations as enthusiastically as I do is poor grounds to accuse them of moral and intellectual evasion. As Rand put it, their contradictions are their own cross to carry and have no averse effect on my own convictions.


The damning thing about commercialism is that its proxies - media editors, critics, bankers, brokers, culture gatekeepers, CEOs, shareholders, advertisers, retailers, consumers - all conspire to squeeze you tighter and tighter in a vice of 'economic interests' until your integrity spurts out your arse. It's the spiritual equivalent of dumping toxic waste into a virgin river, then bottling the foul water and charging you five bucks for the pleasure of drinking it.

The evolution of the mob

My dear G,

I worry that you may have misinterpreted my comment on my misanthropic tendencies. Unfortunately, as you and I are well aware of, written communication has its limitations. Words can be read in the wrong spirit, and without body language to escort them, misunderstanding can happen. Not to mention the time lapse that prevents instant clarification or modification of a statement. Still, we try our best.

So, what's your drug?

Romantic fantasies untempered by scientific knowledge births chimeras of half-truths and outright nonsense. But the sovereign individual with her irrefutable subjectivity is entitled to her imaginings, however ridiculous. The facts of things are indifferent to self-indulgent silliness.

Still, she could benefit from such mind games, if only as a distraction from the implacable ‘is-ness’ of things she secretly fears.

To each their own self-medication against existential angst. To each their own self-concocted balm to dull the chronic ache of life.


24 February 2009

An expensive hand-shovel

Professor, what a surprise! I didn’t think you were the type to visit these ‘bobo’ haunts.

Only when I wish to be benignly scammed into paying three times the price for a deliberately distressed dresser.

One litre of tears

Hey Leena, just writing to share something with you.

Have you heard of a Japanese drama series called 'One Litre of Tears'? It's a TV series based on a true story, about a 15 year old girl, Aya Kito, who was diagnosed with a disease called 'spinocerebellar ataxia'. Basically, it's a disease where the cerebellum degenerates over time (how fast this occurs varies between different people), causing sufferers to gradually lose control over their muscles and ability to speak, eventually requiring a wheelchair to move around and finally being bedridden. The cruel thing is, their intellect is unaffected, so sufferers of this disease are aware of how helpless they are becoming as time goes on. They literally become trapped in a prison that is their body.

Interview with L C Land

Firstly, thank you for doing this interview at such short notice.

My pleasure. Thank you for taking an interest.

I know you’re on a tight schedule today, so I’ll make this as quick as I can. Your latest novel The Fantastilicious Episode of the Diminishing Error tackles the philosophical idea of mind-body dualism. Do you subscribe to dualism?

Absolutely not, and the novel is a sort of fiction-as-refutation of the idea largely attributed to the 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes, although dualism's origins are much older. Without wading into a pool of metaphysical jargon, this story sets out to counter the rather persistent belief in a disembodied soul or self that is independent of, or only tenuously connected to, the body.

So what is the story about?

Without giving away too much, the heroes are a young brother and sister whose parents, a scientist and an engineer, are charged with treason and sentenced to hard labour for life by a repressive theocracy that preaches dualism as a means of controlling the populace. But our irrepressible heroes meet some unlikely allies in their quest to find and rescue their parents.

Imagining the Self (2)

In chapter nine, The Sensory Room, of Raymond Tallis’s book The Kingdom of Infinite Space, under the subchapter The Mystery of the Head-Room, Tallis devotes a few pages to expounding on his Selfhood. How, he asks, do we account for ‘the fact that there is such a thing as ‘the first person’ – the I, here, now – to which all this variety [of conscious experience] is ultimately referred’?

Like the French philosopher Rene Descartes was roughly 400 years ago, Tallis is both puzzled and amazed by this unique human ability to perceive one’s Self, to know oneself as an ‘I’. And like Descartes, Tallis attributes this special power to something outside the body. He makes what is referred to in some philosophical circles as the Cartesian Error; the Mind (the Self) must be separate from the Body (the brain). Thus Tallis dismisses the claim that the mind is, or comes from, the brain as ‘neuromythology’, an overextension by overconfident neuroscientists.

Without… a unifying ‘I’, the brain or mind would simply be a colloidal suspension of unhaunted modules – which is how the cognitive scientist seems to present it. That is why many neuroscientists deny that there is such a thing as a self. If they can’t find it or conceive of it in neurological terms, it can’t exist.

27 January 2009

Imagining the Self (1)

In his book The Kingdom of Infinite Space, Raymond Tallis disparagingly refers to the (scientifically supported) idea that we are our brains as ‘neuromythology’. While I agree with Tallis’s argument that though the brain is a necessary condition for consciousness, it is not a sufficient condition in itself, I think he underestimates the importance of the brain as the seat of consciousness. He is (partially) correct to assert that
Selves require bodies as well as brains, material environments as well as bodies, and societies as well as material environments.

However, this presumes a conventional, organic kind of Self, one shaped by a human body and by a human-centric material environment and society. As a thought experiment, say we hook up a living human brain to a sophisticated piece of machinery, effectively creating a cyborg. One could argue that the cyborg would thus be conscious and so have a Self, but a Self that would be very different to the Self that Tallis argued depended on non-brain factors. The brain remains the prime ingredient, without which we wouldn’t be able to even speak of Selves.

08 January 2009

The folly of 'future value'

In Issue 6 (November 08) of Standpoint magazine, the 'Dialogue' section featured a discussion between Samuel Brittan and Edward Hadas on the topic 'Is capitalism morally bankrupt?' Regarding the financial system's questionable viability, Brittan remarked that it was 'when people are acquiring objects... for their resale value that the system gets rather wonky', creating 'asset bubbles'. This tendency for people to buy things for their future value rather than for their present 'use value' manifests itself in actions like purchasing investment homes, not to live in, but in the hope of the building's value appreciating over time for a profitable resale. All sorts of financial speculation is essentially future-oriented rather than focused on the present pleasures to be had from products and assets.

Investments, speculation, financial forecasts; these spheres of economic activity emphasize the gaining of greater wealth over the actual enjoyment of products or experiences. The dominant mentality is that of a gambler, rather than an aesthete. No need to recommend the ascetic life as the moral ideal. There's nothing reprehensible in wanting and appreciating things. And it is in acquiring things that money shows its utility. But to chase more of it at the expense of delighting in the very stuff that it has delivered is a sad and vulgar exercise.

Brittan has placed a finger on one contributor to the global financial crisis. The complex economics that underpins his observations escapes me, but I agree with Richard Todd, who in his book The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity, declared that 'We need to be better materialists.' I interpret Todd's opinion as a call for us to reassess our material priorities, for we all have material priorities, even the most austere world-renouncers amongst us (it's only a matter of degree). Better that we love and respect things for their 'use value' now, and not merely for their economic value later.


03 January 2009

Remember, it's 'philo-sophia', not 'niko-philia'

Given its etymology, the study and practice of 'philo-sophia' should produce a sophiaphile - a lover of wisdom - rather than a philosopher, a term that suggests a mainly academic approach to philosophy. If we are to be true to the spirit of philosophy, one exemplified by luminaries like Socrates, the Buddha, Seneca, Montaigne and Thoreau, its study should shape us into a wiser, braver, more compassionate, more temperate, more equanimous person. Yet much academic philosophy seems to focus on acquiring - and subsequently sharpening - a set of tools (weapons?) with which to win arguments, subjugate opponents, intimidate laymen and browbeat critics.

This isn't to say that there is no place for healthy debate, civil argument and informed polemics in philosophy. Such things are crucibles from which knowledge and truth are produced. But we are creatures with delicate egos, and too many philosophical engagements take the form of heated duels fought over personal honour rather than co-operative discussions with the goal of discovering answers to questions, solutions to problems.

It would be good to complement the proper pursuit of knowledge and truth with an equal dedication to cultivating personal virtue. It would be good for each of us to be both an intellectual philosopher and a virtuous sophiaphile.