O the dragons are gonna fly tonight

17 07 2014

I.

I understand the difference between unintentionally and intentionally killing someone, I do.

I understand that Hamas fires off rockets with the intention of killing Israelis, military & civilian alike, and I understand that the Israeli Defense Force fires missiles into Gaza with the intention of killing Hamas fighters, and in so doing, unintentionally kills civilians.

I get it: the purposes are not the same.

But.

When you are aware that your intentional actions will lead to large numbers of unintentional deaths, well, then it’s hard to see how much that lack of intention matters to the unintentionally dead, or to the families of the unintentionally dead.

Or to those of us witnessing the bodies of the unintentionally dead.

II.

If the Malaysian airliner was shot down unintentionally, accidentally, does that make it okay?

III.

I understand, really I do, the thinking behind the statement that Hamas are responsible for the civilian dead in Gaza: were they not to insist upon firing rockets into Israel, it would not be necessary for Israel to fire missiles into Gaza.

But the fact remains: Israel fires missiles into Gaza.

The fact remains: Israelis missiles killed those boys on the beach.

IV.

You may argue, if you wish, both that Israel is morally responsible in its attempts to limit civilian casualties and that Hamas is completely responsible for civilian casualties.

You may argue that, if you wish.

But if Israel is not responsible, then how is it responsible?

V.

I don’t know what I would do, how I would think, if I lived in Tel Aviv, Gaza, Hebron, or Jerusalem, if it were me, transplanted from my junior one-bedroom in Brooklyn to an apartment in Israel or the Occupied Territories.

If it were me, would I call those territories occupied, which they are, or would I call them Palestine, which is what some want them to become?

(Judea & Samaria? No: it is still me.)

How would I understand Israelis, Palestinians? the soldiers, the militants, the terrorists? the politicians? the underpaid academics, the cafe-goers and olive farmers and scientists and tour guides and those for whom the land is their home, their everything?

The kids, the families, anyone at a beach in July: that I understand.

VI.

From where I sit, in my junior one-bedroom in Brooklyn, it is clear: this must stop!

But of course. How obvious is that observation. How useless it is.

How many people disagree, by agreeing to its extremes; who seek for it to continue, without end, until it all can be finally ended.

Who don’t care what it takes to get to that final end, how much and how many will be destroyed.





I turn to my computer like a friend

24 02 2014

This isn’t creepy at all:

Language, [Ray Kurzweil] believes, is the key to everything. “And my project is ultimately to base search on really understanding what the language means. When you write an article you’re not creating an interesting collection of words. You have something to say and Google is devoted to intelligently organising and processing the world’s information. The message in your article is information, and the computers are not picking up on that. So we would like to actually have the computers read. We want them to read everything on the web and every page of every book, then be able to engage an intelligent dialogue with the user to be able to answer their questions.”

Excellent.

Google will know the answer to your question before you have asked it, he says. It will have read every email you’ve ever written, every document, every idle thought you’ve ever tapped into a search-engine box. It will know you better than your intimate partner does. Better, perhaps, than even yourself.

Nope, not the least bit creepy.

Or it would be if it weren’t horseshit.

Yeah, yeah— “Computers are on the threshold of reading and understanding the semantic content of a language, but not quite at human levels. But since they can read a million times more material than humans they can make up for that with quantity.”—but brute force isn’t always for the win. And a bit of code which allows a computer to understand the documents it scans doesn’t mean that computer will have attained human understanding.

It’s not that I doubt computers can learn in some sense of the word, that it can incorporate algorithms and heuristics which will allow it to attain some kind of understanding of what it learns; I don’t doubt that computer understanding is possible.

It’s just not clear that computer understanding is comparable to human understanding, not least because it’s unclear what human understanding is, and across time and space, becomes.

Human understanding may also incorporate algorithms and heuristics, but I don’t know that it can be reduced to that. It is fragile and unstable and prone to break down, and even when we think we understand, well, maybe we don’t.

And can I mention disagreement in understanding?

Ray Kurzweil is, as the Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr, notes, a “techno-optimist”, someone who believes tech can make turn us all into bionic women and six million dollar men (Better. Stronger. Faster.).

As someone who wears glasses, uses the elevator to trundle my overstuffed laundry bag down a couple of floors, and likes to sit back and watch Leverage on my computer, I ain’t anti-tech, far from it.

But I am a skeptic. Especially of the idea that tech will allow us to escape the human condition.

Maybe someday we will no longer be human, we will be immortal or transformed or perhaps we will truly have figured out some way to transcend the immanent. Perhaps someday we will escape being—we will no longer be.

Actually, we already can achieve that: it’s called dying. But I don’t think that’s what Kurzweil has in mind.

~~~

h/t HuffPo

 





Just sitting on your porch

9 09 2012

So I had this post in my head about understanding and not understanding and agnosticism and religion and politics and empathic imagination. . . .

It’s still there, and there it remains, at least for another day.





Mayan campaign mashup 2012: We belong together

6 09 2012

Yeah, he’s pretty good, isn’t he?

President Obama lacked the jocular wit of Clinton—who, despite some meanderings, pretty much killed it last night—but Obama’s got that (forgive the cliche) steely gaze that says We are on.

He’s not warm, not cuddly, not gather-y’all-in-my-arms like Clinton, but when he says “no one gets left behind,” you—well, I—get the sense that he will make goddamned sure that everyone is all aboard.

And Biden? Well, y’know, Joe. . . . If nothing else, he offered up a nice contrast for the supremely focused Obama.

My favorite part? The focus on citizenship, of course, the mention of obligation and responsibility, the notion that we really are a people.

So, yeah, I liked the speech—even more, frankly, than I liked Clinton’s (although I did enjoy Bill’s riffs more). And as a variation on what I said yesterday, even if this wasn’t particularly for me, it did include me, which, again, is nice.

How will others’ respond? I’d guess that most Dems will like it, most Repubs will dislike it, and the undecideds. . . well, I don’t understand undecideds, don’t understand what, at this point, what undecideds are undecided about.

In fact, I’d probably find it easier to crawl into the head of someone on the opposite side of the political spectrum than someone wandering about muttering I just don’t know. At least that rightist will share the sense that this shit matters.

No, that’s not a slap at the swings (although, to be honest, it started as one): I truly do not get those who care enough to vote, but who don’t care enough to form an opinion about that vote.

Eh, maybe they do, maybe I’m mistaking indecision for deliberation, maybe—probably—I fundamentally misunderstand the conditions under which the swings, well, swing.

And yeah, I could probably read survey results or transcripts of interviews with undecideds, and by perusing the literature could get a handle on the mechanics of indecision and the trajectories of swingers, and offer a half-decent analysis of the dance of the undecideds.

But in my bones, I probably still wouldn’t get it.





You should wear with pride the scars on your skin

19 12 2011

Christopher Hitchens and Vaclav Havel died this past weekend.

Both men were writers deeply engaged in the politics of our time; one was more in love with words than ideas, the other, the other way around.

One man engaged in politics, the other, engaged in the engagement; both are worthy pursuits, but they are not equal to each other.

One man knew that, the other didn’t.

One was a hell of a s/wordsman, and I would have loved to have had the chance to have lost (as I would have) an argument to him. Fight above your weight class, I say, and Hitchens was certainly far above mine; losing to him would have been instructive, and if I could never have hoped to have bested him in argument, I could have applied the lessons of those beatings elsewhere.

But if I wanted to learn more than verbal fisticuffs, I would rather have sat down in a smoky pub with Havel. If Hitchens had great verbal reflexes, Havel was the far better reflector. He questioned, he doubted, he admitted the possibility of error in his steadfast search for moral clarity. He lived an absurd life, and was imprisoned by an absurd regime for pointing out its absurdity.

His stint as leader of Czechoslovakia, and later, as president of the Czech Republic, was not an unqualified success, and some of us were disappointed by his support for the Iraq war. He based that support on the grounds of the threat Saddam Hussein held for the Iraqis, not the Americans, and even that support was qualified, arguing that  “the international community has the right to intervene when human rights are liquidated in such a brutal way.”

I have some sympathy for liberal interventionism—the legacy of inaction in Rwanda—but even more suspicion; still, I can extend that sympathy to someone whose country was ripped apart by Hitler, then stomped on by the Soviets in 1968. Havel’s idealism got him through prison terms and decades of oppression, and if that same idealism led him to underestimate the Hobbesian in politics, well, I can still appreciate his admonition that Truth and love must triumph over lies and hatred.

Hitchens was a champion hater and, to be honest, I can take altogether too much comfort in my own contempts. I enjoy the fight, enjoy the hardness of verbal combat and in slamming back a volley aimed at my own head. I like to win—ohhhh, do I like to win.

But winning is not enough; what is the win for?

What is needed is something different, something larger. Man’s attitude toward the world must be radically changed. We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered, a body of information to be fed into a computer in the hope that sooner or later it will spit out a universal solution.

. . . We must see the pluralism of the world, and not bind it by seeking common denominators or reducing everything to a single common equation. We must try harder to understand rather than to explain. . . . In short, human uniqueness, human action, and the human spirit must be rehabilitated.

From a speech before the World Economic Forum, 1992

I do not share Havel’s moral idealism, Havel’s hope, but I don’t think he’s wrong to tell us to look past ourselves, our interests and our fears, and to live in the full possibility of this human world.

I might have had fun hanging out with Hitchens, and been discomfitted by Havel, but I think the discomfitting is more fitting: unease propels me more than certainty ever will.





Try to see it your way

1 12 2011

I am not, as you know, a particularly religious person.

An agnostic, I believe I have called myself on severaleventy occasions. A-gnostic, as in, I lack knowledge [about matters of God]; skeptic regarding claims of god/s would also work, as would unbeliever when it comes to the supernatural (such that if there is any kind of being who might be called a god, that being would exist within and not outside of nature, insofar as I don’t believe that anything exists outside of nature).

Hm, perhaps I should have included more brackets and/or parentheses.

Anyway, despite by a-skepti-gnosti-naturalism, I remain interested in many things religion, and for all kinds of reasons (none of which—look! more parentheses!—I’ll discuss here).

Which brings me to this little jewel of a thought, quoted by Kurt Frederickson, and re-quoted by Fred Clark:

Swedish Lutheran theologian Krister Stendhal offers us three guidelines for broader religious understanding. He says: (1) When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its critics. (2) Don’t compare the best of your faith to the worst of another’s. (3) Leave room for “holy envy.” Recognize elements in the other religious tradition that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own. These suggestions change the conversation. It enhances the dialogue and our lives.

A fine set of guidelines, easily adaptable for any kind of conversation in which anyone seeks to understand anything.

Now, if I didn’t have a cold and my brain wasn’t fooked by microbes, I’d use this as a take-off for a discussion of John Caputo, Gianni Vattimo, radical hermeneutics, weak theology, and just what the hell is meant by the “hard” versus the “soft” sciences and why that distinction is fucked up and bullshit, but, like I said, my own brain is fucked up and bullshit, so there you go.

Anyway, understanding. Yeah.





What are words for?

6 08 2011

A few words about words:

Privilege. I have used this word, and will continue to do so in the context of “privileges and liberties” and “privileges and/versus rights” and “privileged information”.

I have also used in terms of “skin privilege”, as in I, as a white chick, have skin privilege: I don’t have to think about skin color/race because, through no effort of my own, I have, in this country, the default skin color.  There are things I don’t have to worry about because I’m white.

The term, in other words, can do some real work; unfortunately, it can also do some real damage.

What was meant at one point to lead to greater understanding now gets in the way of that understanding. It has become a term of opprobrium, an insult to be hurled at anyone who hasn’t had the worst of everything and therefore can contribute nothing to understanding anything.

It shuts people down, and, as a general matter, I don’t see the point of that.

I do see the point of trying to prod folk into critical (self-)reflection, to encourage people to be mind-ful of what in their lives was unearned and, perhaps, to then gain some perspective on what was earned. It’s not about individuals versus structures, but about individuals within structures, how individuals move structures and structures move individuals and the multivarious ontological and practical implications.

Good times.

Wielders of the privilege weapon, however, too often try to guilt the individual for the existence of the structure itself, that someone who’s rich is responsible for the class system, that the individual man is responsible for patriarchy or each straight person wholly owns heteronormativity (yet another word which should be confined to the academy), or that ablism is the fault of every person who’s able-bodied and ageism, each and every young whippersnapper out there.

How is this helpful to anyone? What role does such shaming have in creating a more thoughtful people or a more equal society?

The ends may not justify the means, but they should inform them.

Triggered/trigger-warning: This is not a term I’ve used, although I have some sympathy for those who do.

There are some topics which are known to set off intense reactions in those who read or hear them; knowing this, some people choose to offer a warning before diving into those topics. That’s a decent thing to do.

Now, perhaps I don’t do this because I’m not decent—entirely possible—or maybe it’s because I don’t know what’s going to set people off. And because I don’t know where to set the line I prefer not to set one at all.

I’m going to write what I write, and while (with some notable exceptions) I don’t intend to offend, I know I’m going to, regardless. If I worry too much about that offense, I may end up not writing, and I’d rather write and offend (and apologize, if necessary) than not-write so as to not-offend.

I don’t know if that’s better or worse than those who append a TW before a topic; it’s a choice and a preference, nothing more.

Swearing: You may have noticed I do not restrain myself in this area.

The best argument I’ve heard against swearing (thank you, Ms. G, my high school English teacher) was that it wasn’t creative (although, with all respect to Ms. G, I have heard some mighty creative curse constructions). Even that, however, was not and has not been enough to stop me from littering my blog and speech with blue words.

Now, if I give a formal presentation, I don’t swear. If I prepare an article for publication, I don’t swear. Professional situations? Ixnay on the ursecay.  I try very hard not to swear around little kids (let ‘em learn these words from the older kids, the way I did), or, for that matter, around people who I know are offended by swearing—especially if I’m a guest.

But this blog ain’t a formal presentation: it’s a cyber-conversation, and in conversation, I tend to lay down the low language.

I’m not proud of this, and I periodically try to clean it up—but more for aesthetics than morality.

Goddess forbid I’d let morality get in the way of my rampages. . . .








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