If I can make one person think once more about one issue, I've done all I can. Maybe I take things too seriously...or maybe you don't take things seriously enough.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Don't Stop Believing

"The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis."
Dante Alighieri

For those of you not aware (oh, how few you are), I'm a fairly avid computer gamer. On one of my more regular online games, we ended up in a discussion about war crimes, history and the fact that 'the winner writes history'. The particular context was (as is so often the case) World War 2, and it came about due to someone using the phrase 'the good guys won'. Obviously, being the argumentative sod that I am, I contended the statement (and was backed up by a few other helpful people) on the grounds that, whichever side had won, they'd have called themselves the good guys.

That all said, my post is not actually about victor's justice. Rather, it is about what occurred later on in the discussion. I noticed that, in quick succession, a pair of comments followed one another: firstly, "democracy is a good form of government" (paraphrased); followed swiftly by "but what can I do about [insert issue here]?"

I thought this was a particularly interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, we have the confident assertion that democracy is the 'best' form of government. Leaving aside both the ambiguity of the word 'best' (which, I admit, I can't guarantee was used) and the relative merits and demerits of democracy, I decided that I was most interested by the fact that the second statement could be used by someone who believed the first statement.

Democracy can be defined in many ways, most of which depend on exactly how cynical you are. The more optimistic could call it 'rule by the people', whereas the more cynical (such as myself) could call it 'rule by mass idiocy'. Nevertheless, the core ideal of democracy is that the individual person should be able to control the actions of his government.

Now, if you subscribe to the idea that democracy is better than dictatorship, but believe you cannot change the path of your democracy, I pose to you the following question: Why have the democracy? After all, under the democracy, you can't change the decisions your ruler(s) make, so why pretend that you can? At least, in a dictatorship, the dictator has no leg to stand on if he makes an error: the decision was always his. In a democracy, it is quite possible for errors to be blamed as much on the people as they are on the leader, despite the ridiculousness of such a situation.

For democracy to be anything other than dictatorship by another name, it requires those who are part of the democracy to participate. When I say participate, I do not simply mean vote: I mean that those in the democracy must actively engage in the political process. They must form their own opinions and beliefs, and act accordingly. If the electorate does not do this, then the democracy is nothing more than dictatorship by collective assent.

So, to any of you out there who value your Western ideals of 'freedom' and 'democracy', but just vote Labour because your dad does, or don't vote because you're lazy, or just in general fail to interact with the world in a political fashion: it's time for you to decide. Do you want to be politically active, and keep your democracy? Or would you rather just lie there on your sofa? Either way, you need to decide.

Opinions? As usual, let me know.


NB: The above does not mean I exclude the idea of an 'abstinent vote'. What I exclude is the idea that people should vote (or not vote) without thinking. I believe that not voting can be a valid expression of your democratic rights: it says that you believe that none of the candidates is good for the country, and refuse to settle for 'the lesser evil'. At least you took the time to form your opinion.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

All Along The Watchtower

Hello again. Excuse the extremely long absence: I've always been a fairly flighty character, and as a result I've taken what could be considered an 'extended unannounced leave of absence' from blogging. All of that said, a comment by a friend at a party has caused me to get back into the whole thing, and so the few of you still paying any attention to it will get the dubious pleasure of reading my craziness once again.

Let's launch straight into it: what is it about internet communities that are so appealing to people? I'd love to say that I've been pondering this issue for days, but frankly, it has only recently occurred to me as a question thanks to Shamus Young at Twenty Sided. That said, after watching the long video (embedded at the end), it had raised some very important questions.

It has always been an important part of my 'knowledge' regarding self that Human Beings are inherently social creatures. This is not to say that we are collectivist, like ants, but that we rely on our social support structures. We are not truly Human Beings without the important and complicated frameworks of modern society. Humanity is more than simply a body. Don't assume that I subscribe to some notion of the 'soul': instead, I refer to the Terry Pratchett idea of human beings requiring stories to remain human. In his words, Humanity is where "the falling angel meets the rising ape", and he has something of a point.

The problem increasingly comes in a modern society with so much interconnectedness that the individual is increasingly being eroded. Simply using Google allows you to potentially find out an awful lot about a single person, and the more skilled you are at using it, the more you can find out. In a world like this, what does the word 'privacy' mean? After all, using what you find out on the internet, you could quite conceivably find out more that isn't strictly within the public domain.

On the other hand, the internet community provides a different kind of privacy: privacy by numbers. While a person isn't strictly anonymous, it is a challenge to pick one person out of a crowd. And the internet is the biggest crowd ever gathered: hundreds of millions of people all using the same tools, for different ends. This presents one of the greatest defenses against intrusion into your privacy: probability. It's impossible to watch everyone, so you may not be being watched.

Anyway, my task for you, readers is simple. I want you to watch the video, and I want you to decide what you think, both of YouTube, and of online communities in general. And then I want you to hit the comment button, and tell me.



Monday, 23 June 2008

George Carlin

Why does everyone I like die? Seriously?

RIP George Carlin

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Carl Sagan: Pale Blue Dot

Not much from me, just a video. Possibly my favourite video of all time. RIP Carl Sagan. RIP.

Friday, 30 May 2008

Never Is Enough

I find that I'm always at my most thoughtful (some would say soppy) late at night, when everyone around me is asleep and I appear to have the world to myself. Of course, when I'm at home, this is a lot earlier than when I'm at uni, but that's beside the point. What's important is that in these quiet times, when the only noise around me is the whirr of a computer fan and the silent noise of trees, I'm able to think with a degree of clarity, and perhaps melancholy, that I'm not really able to access at any other time.

I was always a dramatic person, in all senses of the word: I enjoyed (and still enjoy) acting, and was also careful to surround myself with drama. In this way, secondary school was very good for me, as there is no way to guarantee drama like shoving a thousand hormonal teenagers into half a square kilometre. I spent about 6 years in various different places, but all of them had the same vibe, and in that 6 years I learnt a lot that interests me, and a bit that's important to me. Now, if you don't mind me preaching for a little while, I'd like to elaborate a little on one of the second.

I am, and always have been, a geek. By all possible standards of the word, I was a major, major geek. Computer literate before anyone my age that I knew, my primary school called upon me to solve tech problems, before the called upon a staff member. I was academically sound, particularly strong in mathematics and science, and I wasn't particularly interested in sport. Jesus, I had a bloody telescope.

This didn't change as I grew up (the geekiness, not the telescope). However, it reached a point where I realised that there was something about my geekiness that was not necessarily an asset, socially speaking. I discovered that many people did not, in fact, enjoy science that much, and particularly did not take kindly to my science test scores. In essence, it occured to me that maybe, in order to get people to like me, it would be a sensible idea to dumb down.

So I adapted. I adapted and I learnt. I learnt how to hide the scientific interest, how to hide my enjoyment of videogames, how to hide the fact that I could while away several hours by absorbing myself in Lord of the Rings or 1984 or whatever book came my way. I also learnt that, in the absence of being good-looking, I had to rely on other traits: I fell back on sarcasm and sympathy.

The more astute among you will have realised where I'm going about this, but I'll be clear about the matter anyway: I'm referring specifically to the phenomenon of 'labelling'. Also known as stereotyping, this particular phenomenon is well known, and is best illustrated in the highly shallow world of secondary school. Now, before you quickly hit the 'home' button in an attempt to escape, let me clarify. I'm not going to preach about how labelling is some horrible thing that we should all avoid. This is not my high horse, and I'm not going to pretend that this little blog will fix the ills of the world; and furthermore, I'm not trying to get revenge on anyone I feel may have victimised me in the past. All I want to do is point out the few things I've learnt about labels:

1) They will define you.

People don't like this one much. People prefer to gloss over the issue, prefer to say "Oh no, I would never be so rash as to stereotype someone". Despite this, it happens every day. Consider the panicky white woman who crosses the road when the black kid is walking down the street. She may not actually be racist, frankly, but the stereotype of troublemakers has a depressingly black label attached to it. So she sees a black kid walking towards her, and makes a cognitive leap.

It happens when you let people know a little about yourself. "I play Dungeons and Dragons". In their head, a whole set of conclusions are leapt to from this point: he's shy, he's reclusive, he's good with numbers, he's a virgin, girls never talk to him, etc. "I like going out": he's a drunk, he's promiscuous (a great word, by the way), he's an idiot, he's talkative and he's not a hard worker. Whenever you have a form that includes the big box with the title "Tell us a bit about yourself", what it's really saying is 'Please help us put you in a box'.

2) You can choose them.

Strangely, this one is not hit upon so often. But in reality, there is very little preventing the vast majority of people being able to pick any of the labels they want. I went for sarcastic and nice because I was those things anyway, but if I wanted to become the popular, loud guy, I could have done that too. In some ways, this mitigates the affect of number 1: at least you can choose what conclusion others will jump to.

3) They don't matter.

They don't. Not a jot. It took me way too long to realise that, actually, it didn't matter whether people thought of me as 'the nice guy' or 'the geeky guy'. The only people who were going to rely on those labels were those who didn't know me very well, and frankly, those people are not very high up on my list of "People whose opinions I give a shit about". Anyone I spent any iota of time with will know that there is more to me than that, and that perhaps I shouldn't be judged on what I immediately appear to be. What's worse is that I only realised that in year 12. What a fool I am!

But for those of you still in education, let me add this conciliatory note: anyone who doesn't care about you, will be gone. I am currently in touch with 7 people from my secondary school (I counted my phonebook), and I don't feel like I should be in contact with more. These 7 people were not necessarily my closest friends in school, either, but in hindsight, they were probably my best ones: after all, they're the only ones still making an effort, a year later, to put up with my bullshit. And what more can I ask for than that?

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Do schools kill creativity?

Imperial Creed linked a video in his comment on my previous post. It's an excellent video, and I thought that, rather than let it languish on the sidelines, I should make it easier to see. Thus, here it is:

Friday, 11 April 2008


For quite a while now I've been wondering what exactly it is people mean when they say someone is gifted. I think the main reason I've wondered about this is because I've spent most of my life being put in that category.

I know this sounds conceited, but really, it's simply an observation. When I was in Melbourne, I was more or less the only white middle-class person in my year group, which was only 30 strong anyway. I knew more about computers than my teachers, and I was (depressingly) on excellent terms with the vast majority of the teaching staff. All in all, I was more or less a model student.

This theme was broadly repeated throughout my life. What is more weird is that I always suspect that people thought I did better than I actually did. I remember scoring good, but not amazing, GCSE results, and having everyone be really surprised. At the time, all I could think was: "I told you I wasn't that good."

I think the reason I find this strange is that I was always told I was good at something. People would say, "You're so good at Maths", or physics, or whatever. But from my perspective, I don't think that's quite true. What I was good at was learning.

I realised this in year 13. For some reason, anything that was put in front of my I would soak up. I'd write it down, do a couple of exercises, and then it'd be there. And I spent a long period of time confused by the fact that people didn't seem to catch on as quickly as I did. This also meant that I failed to develop a work ethic, and really, this is true amongst all gifted students. The question is: how gifted are you?

I ask this for one simple reason. When I got into highschool, I became friends with another of those 'gifted' types, who've had that label thrown at them all their life. And there's no denying, he was bright. And, like me, he had an awful work ethic. Chatty and easily distracted, we were horrible for most teachers, even though they barely had to teach us.

The difference is, come A-levels, I still did well. I walked into the exam having under-prepared, and came out of it having done far better than I had any right to do. He walked in, and came out with a D.

I was truly staggered. Here was someone who had performed amazingly well at every moment up until the actual test, and then he tanked. I was truly, truly shocked. And it put a lot in perspective for me. As it turns out, there eventually comes a time when raw talent won't carry you through any more. This differs from person to person, but eventually one has to realise that you simply aren't good enough to do this without help any more.

The problem, of course, lies in the treatment of 'gifted' children. It is incredibly difficult to integrate them into the standard strata of education, because if you do they will become bored and lazy due the fact that they will never be challenged. Conversely, remove them from the usual education system and they will lose their ability to reconcile their talents with those who lack them. The number of times I've seen 'gifted' students berate their colleagues for failing to recognise something ("It's so obvious, how can you not see that?") is almost uncountable, and it more or less boils down to a failure to understand that other people's minds may not work in the same fashion to yours.

Sadly, it's a tricky balance. What are your opinions of the 'gifted'? And, for that matter, of the 'entitled'? Let me know.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

On Morality

Yesterday was a strange, strange day. I can leave most of it out, but the relevant part of it is that I spent a decent proportion of time reading Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, which is all well and good, but I should have been reading An Enquiry Into Human Understanding. Anyway, long story short, a member of my philosophy class noticed, and we ended up having a pretty in depth discussion about both the text, and about morality in general. As I suspect you're sick of my ranting and raving by this point, rather than complain about something specific in the world, I'll simply have a one-sided discussion regarding morality and moral theory.

Before we begin, a few quick caveats. This is primarily a discussion about moral theory. I will not sit here and preach at you, if only because I'm hardly in a position to dispense wisdom. In addition, I will mostly talk about 'established' moral theories. Sadly, my philosophical education is not particularly deep, and so I know a little about quite a few theories. Thus, if there is any member of my readership who has more detailed knowledge about any of the matters I touch upon, please, speak up in the comments. Finally, let me point out that discussion of morality has been going on for thousands of years. Do not expect my post to add anything new to the discussion. All I hope to do is open it up for you guys to think about it, and hopefully comment constructively beneath the post.

Also, a final warning: this post could take a very, very long time to read. (Portal, anyone?)

Morality is, and has almost always been, a major point of contention in society. The reason for this is simple: very few people agree. As a result, a great number of the 'famous' philosophers have at least dipped into the area of morality. This tends to mean that the area is a convoluted mess of hundreds of different people each expounding a different view, or at least a variation on the same view, which tends to mean that people bicker a lot. This also explains the Daily Mail.

The problem most moral theories suffer from is that they are, by necessity, extreme. A moral theory which says 'um, well, it depends, actually' tends not to get very far (with the exclusion of Virtue Theory, more of which later). As a result most theories tend to be a little...radical. Consider Kant's deontology. This will quite literally proscribe that lying is wrong in absolutely all circumstances. I'm sure you can think of quite a few examples off the top of your head where this feels a little ridiculous.

Of course, on the other hand, Kant's categorical impreative is actually a rather sensible peice of guidance, albeit one that is difficult to apply 'on the fly'. The second formulation of the imperative is best, which more or less runs as follows: "Act in such a fashion that you never treat a human being simply as a means, but always also as an end." In this particular context, treating someone as an 'end' means respecting their freedom as a moral and logical agent; namely, respecting their right to make choices. Thus, it is ok to treat someone as a means (hell, you do this with shopkeepers all the time) so long as you are still allowing them freedom to make choices.

On the other side of the map, we have Utilitarian theory, originally proposed by Jeremy Bentham, but then later refined by J.S Mill. Utilitarian theory, in its barebones state, says that you should act in such a fashion as to ensure 'the greatest good for the greatest number'. In this particular case, good refers to 'pleasure' or 'enjoyment'. Thus, so long as everyone feels good about things, you are acting in a moral fashion. Once again, however, criticism is fairly easy: after all, this theory allows murder in quite a few cases.

Mill, in what I consider to be his greatest faux pas actually made this theory worse (once again, my opinion) by implementing a distinction between the 'higher' and 'lower' pleasures, with higher pleasures (such as studying philosophy) being worth more 'pleasure points' than lower ones, such as eating a tasty burger.

Rather than continue to elaborate on various different moral theories, I'll instead talk briefly about the one that appeals to me most: Aristotle's Virtue Theory. Broadly, Aristotle says that the moral thing to do depends on the situation, and the person involved. Virtue theory is so called because Aristotle suggests that only the virtuous person knows how to act morally in a situation, and the only way to be a virtuous person is to cultivate the virtues. So, what Aristotle has said is that the moral thing for any person is different, depending on the circumstances and the type of person they are. Furthermore, if someone is a virtuous person, they will instictively do the morally correct action, and what's more, they will enjoy doing it.

This feels like an unhelpful guide, but Aristotle has happily indicated how it is that one becomes virtuous: namely, through practice. From the base point, it will be difficult to be virtuous; but the longer you try, the easier it becomes, and the more enjoyment you get from it, to the point where you will naturally be courageous, and generous, and kind, and fair.

There is one very simple reason that Aristotle's theory appeals to me, and that's because it's relativistic. Namely, it doesn't say that the virtues need to be the same, and it downright says that different people have a different 'moral act' in the same circumstance. Now, not everyone is a moral relativist, but I've always thought that the only way to avoid being a relativist is to be religious. After all, an atheist is forced to conclude that morality is a purely human societal construct, and as human society is not the same everywhere, morality must therefore not be the same everywhere.

Anyway, what are your thoughts? Could you guide the world in morality? Let me know.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Sunshine or Sunset?

I woke up about half an hour ago, and the first thing I need to remember is to turn my watch forward. Damn daylight savings time. But then, while I set up my virus scan to run in the background, I decide to check my emails and float around some of the blogs of my PCG chat compatriots, and while I was doing so I noticed that both Creed's Blog and James have taken the Anne Diamond story to heart. So, rather than add what little I could say on the subject to their posts, I'll instead link you to the story and talk about something else.

I went out last night with a few friends and respective partners. We went into town, had a beer or two, then went back to the house of one of the party. At his house, we sorta splintered off and did different things: a few people set up the Wii and played Wii sports, while the rest of us hung around the iPod dock and had an unnecessarily loud singalong to whatever music we could find.

Unforunately for you guys, however, the events of that night are not the point of this particular post. Instead, I'd like to talk about binge drinking culture.

I feel as though that particular sentence has already scared you all off. After all, this has been debated repeatedly in the modern media for more or less the last 5 years, and I'm fairly sure that by now you are getting fairly tired of it. Well, tough. I'd like to put forward my viewpoint on the particular issue, and the only solace you can take in that is that I'm not a newspaper, and I'm not able to access the relevant medical studies (at least, not easily), so this is going to be purely opinion.

Firstly, let's just be clear on what I mean about 'binge drinking culture'. I am referring to the culture that exists in the modern Western World that glorifies the consumption of extremely large quantities of alcohol in a short period of time. And I have used the word glorifies quite deliberately, namely because that is exactly what it does. How often have you walked past a group of people (usually young, albeit not always) who are talking about their latest night out, and how fantastic it was that they got so smashed?

Now, let me be clear. I don't object to drinking, nor do I object do getting drunk. I will happily have a beer most nights, and although I personally don't drink to get drunk, I am friends with many people who do, and so it would be a bit hypocritical for me to be strongly against the concept. What I dislike is a lot closer to the heart.

For some odd reason, in this binge drinking culture, someone who actively decides not to take part is considered to be an oddity. Even worse, they are subjected to the most overt form of peer pressure around, because not only is everyone doing it, but many of them will make repeated attempts to encourage others to partake in the drunkfest.

Let me reiterate what I said earlier. I do not object to people deciding for themselves to get drunk. In fact, I'm more or less in the J.S Mill camp, in that I believe that, so long as you're the only one harmed, if anyone is, you can do whatever the hell you want. So I don't object to smoking, but I do object to people smoking indoors.

Thus, my reason for becoming annoyed with the binge drink culture is that it is starting to have severe impacts upon people who aren't taking part. Even if you leave out the fairly significant statistics that people who drink are more likely to be violent, and also the drunk driving stats, the binge drink culture is causing a massive shift in the priorities of most people. For instance, on a sunny day, I quite enjoy sitting in a park with a can of coke and a little company, and just existing. But I distinctly recall, back in high school, seeing my friends begin to want to do that less often, as their desire to go out and get hammered increased. Thus, my worry is that the more intense high caused by alcohol is beginning to outweight the smaller highs one can get from doing other things.

I suppose that there's no reason for this to necessarily be considered a bad thing. After all, if people are still enjoying themselves, that's all well and good. I suppose I'll leave it up to you to decide. As for me, I'm going to continue enjoying the sun. If nothing else, it's a hell of a lot cheaper than alcohol.

Friday, 28 March 2008

The News

Today was one of the rare days when I have enough money to wander into the Student Union shop and purchase a paper. So I buy the Guardian, fully expecting to absorb myself for an hour or two before I actually need to knuckle down and do something with my life. So I grab a comfortable chair, discard the sport section and the offer of 25 free songs and 1 audiobook, and flip the paper open.

The Guardian's headline story was fine: new powers for the City watchdogs. But what were they running alongside it? An article about the visit by M and Mme Sarkozy.

This managed not to annoy me much. I just assumed it was a slow news day. And, as I continued to move through the paper, that appeared to be the case. A two page spread on the Presidential visit, and some references to a man having a baby (not the topic of this post).

And then, on page 15, fully half an hour after starting the paper, an article catches my eye. For the unitiated, page 15 is usually around the end of the England-based news, and so tends to be fairly minor stuff. But not today. Languishing, on page 15, in what is supposedly an anti-war newspaper, is an article that announces that the Ministry of Defence have finally admitted guilt for the beatings and subsequent deaths of 8 Iraqi civilians, after months of trial.

Let me fill you in a little more. Several Iraqi civilians were 'detained' by members of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment. At some point during this detention, at least one of these civilians died. The coroner's report indicated cause of death being asphyxiation, but also pointed out the fact that there were 93 (yes, that's right, 93) individual wounds on his body.

Not only this, but apparently the court in which the trial was going on heard that the British Army officers ignored a ban from 1972 which forbade the use of "hooding, stressing, sleep deprivation, food deprivation and worse."

But that isn't the worst of it. The real horror here is not that such a thing happened. The real horror is that, somehow, at the court martial, they all got off. One enlisted man pleaded guilty to the charge; however, 6 others, including the officer in charge, were aquitted of all charges. And, just to cap it off, none of the soldiers had been charged with murder: all were charged with negligence.

I don't know about anyone else, but to me, this highlights exactly why I'm against modern warfare. Now, before anyone tries, I'd like to indicate that at no point do I think the enlisted men are at fault here. However, I think that the current atmosphere of fear regarding the transient and evasive 'terrorist threat' has lead to the rapid dehumanisation of much of the Middle East. This then makes it possible for officers to order the 'softening up' of detainees, which then means the enlisted men are forced to carry out abhorrent acts in the name of 'national defence'.

But what sickens me most is that all of this is done in the name of 'patriotism'. Let me be frank. I am a white Australian, which means I am of British stock. However, I have seen firsthand the destruction caused in my country by the British Empire. In the past, an abhorrent and disturbing amount of blood has been shed underneath, and in the name of, the Union Jack. What saddens me is that the current rulership of Britain seems determined to enforce a fear of that flag, by continuing the brutality and slaughter in the name of it. All of this, and then people wonder why it is that the Iraqi people weren't glad to see soldiers wearing the Union Jack entering the country. Hell, I'm not happy having the Union Jack on my own nation's flag.

If Britain wants respect on the world stage, it will need to learn to stop being the world's playground bully. After all, as anyone who was bullied will know, you don't respect the bully. You hate him. And the moment you see a way to take him down, you will. So my proposal is this: if you really want national security, stop pissing people off! Instead of shipping 'suspected terrorists' off to Guantanamo in the name of 'security', start helping them! Remove people like Robert Mugabe, not through violence, but through diplomatic and aid-related intervention. Do that, and maybe people will be less inclined to blow you sky high.

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UK admits breaching human rights convention over detainee's death

An Introduction

It's interesting how peer pressure works. Yesterday, I had a conscious thought to myself, which went along the lines of the following: "Why would I get a blog? No-one would read it anyway."

And here, I find myself typing in a box. Nevermind. This is just a placeholder post, as I happen to have one worth reading. Still, here's to maybe getting some minor readership. At least I won't be doing games journalism, eh?