Saturday, November 28, 2009

Welcome to the desert of the real - when a movie becomes an object for philosophers ...

When first released in March of 1999, "The Matrix" of Wachowski brothers, immediately gave rise to multitude of philosophical interpretations. While majority of viewers watched it for stunning and violent action, critics and film makers - for editing, sound and visual effects (it received three Oscars), the philosophers noticed the non-trivial references to various schools of thought from Buddhism, through cartesianism, to existentialism and postmodernism.

The selection of essays, based on, or motivated by "The Matrix" was collected by Open Court Publishers and released in 2002 as "The Matrix and Philosophy" - Vol. 3 in the series "Popular Culture and Philosophy".

I must admit, that the book was very long on my list waiting for me ... I was afraid it was rather superficial account on quite superficial philosophical motives in The Matrix. But the book surprised me very positively. First and foremost, the authors whose essayes are in the book are really distinguished philosophers. Let me only name few: William Irwin, Jorge Garcia, Theodore Shick or Slavoj Zizek from about 20 names.

Second - the authors mostly took The Matrix as the inspiration of some deeper philosophical analysis. These analysis are very interesting and serious, but what is the most important is the very fact that it is for some iconic genre movie that ignited the fire of millenia long dilemmas.

It is impossible in short review to analyse the actual thoughts and polemicize with them.
There are fantastic passages about Platon's alegory of the Cave, about Rene Descartes "Devil" or about Kant forms of perception. All these parables can be found in The Matrix.

Let me, however, look closer at the article "Popping a Bitter Pill: Existential Authenticity in The Matrix and Nausea" by Jennifer L. MacMahon. She analyses the transition undergone by main characters of The Matrix (Neo) and Sartre's "La Nauseé" (Roquentin). In both cases is is about authenticity. The sudden act of awareness reveals, to both of them, though in different way - the true nature of existence. Let me quote:

" ... both The Matrix and Nausea illustrate that authenticity is difficult not only because the truth it reveals is hard to stomach, but also because inauthenticity is the norm. They attribute the prevelance if inauthenticity both to psychological resistance and social indoctrination. As Roquentin's and Neo's experience make evident, the true nature of reality is not necessarily something humans want to see."

This parallel of The Matrix to La Nauseé is especially meaningful to me, because it was the later Sartre novel that was important part of my philosophical awakening, more than 30 years ago, and start for life-long philosophical search....

The another worth mentioning essay is "Real Genre and Virtual Philosophy" by Deborah Knight and George McKnight. It is very important because it uncovers how many of The Matrix philosophical motives could rather be attributed to specific genre it is deeply rooted. In some sense the authors unmask the true inspirations of The Matrix. According to them, they (inspirations) are more for The Matrix being a very good emanation of specific Genre, than for true philosophical convictions of its authors. BTW, the authors of the essay try to map The Matrix onto famous Northrop Frye classification of modern genre, and they argue for The Matrix belongs to ... Romance.

The general conclusion from reading the Book is that, while The Matrix itself is certainly not philosophical fairy-tale and is full of contradictions and serious philosophical simplifications - it still was an ignition for much bigger and much deeper philosophical discussions ...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Future of Books - A discussion

It is just amazing - sometimes a single blog post invokes comments that could be used to write an elaboration on some really momentous theme.

This is exactly the case with David Weinberger post "Will books survive - A scorecard...".

In the post David enumerates 13 features real books feature. He called the tradional books as pBooks in contrast to eBook.

These features are: Readability, Convenience, Annotatability, Affordability, Social flags, Aesthetic objects, Sentimental objects, Historic objects, Historical objects, Specialized objects, Possessions, Single-mindedness, Religious objects.

David then gives his justification about all these features and how they contribute to physical Books survival.

There was increadible discussion after. The opinions varied from such that heralded the death of pBooks or at least a degradation of their importance. Comparisons to vinyl records (superseeded by MP3s) or candles (by electric bulbs) were on the one end, while the glorification of them as objects of liturgy - on the other end (I must admit I was rather in the later pew :-) ).

There are many interesting thoughts, let me just to cite a few here:

Robert Schamalbach, a school librarian supported my remark about distraction we get with eBooks as opposed to the dedication induced by physical books.

Janm pointed out how important is the serendipity real Books bring to our life. That's true. I have always this feeling in little Parisian bookstores I often spend hours ...

Andromenda said important note about childreen books - they hardly be replaced by eBooks.

fjpoblam gave short but funny statement: " “pbooks” are available when the plug and the battery and the screen fail. Period."

Now, I must also admit that I strongly believe in the long live of paper books. I support most of David assertions about particular features. However I stressed the three of them:

1) No distractibility. You described this feature in “Single-mindedness” . We all know that there is shadow part of our Web experience – it is the amount of distraction we get there. I’m sure that no one of us would spent, say 8 hours with the eBook without following a link, without – plainly – distraction. pbooks allow for more concentration, without strong-mindedness :-)

2) The special notion of bookshelves, libraries, bookstores. Maybe hard to explain, but when you are in Paris, please go to Shakespeare & Company on La Bucherie street.
Such places and the special atmosphere of books there will not cease to exist ….

3) Religious importance. We cannot imagine Shabbat prayers without Torah scroll.
However, there is something more important. Books became the objects in ceremonies, objects of special meaning and importance. They became parts of liturgy for numerous religions of the world. Something is in them that is not replaceable by eBooks.
It is not any magic or fetishism – books have significance for our prayers, no matter it is in synagogue, church or mosk. The word of G-d was transmitted physically and this physicality still matters….

However, there is a special kind of eBooks I hope will grow in importance and I hope in future, all books will have their respective audio versions. I wrote:

Its personal – often think about a particular type of eBook – the Audio Book.
For me this is much more important than typical eBook, because it opens new
possibilities for reading – you can read while driving, biking, walking. When you clean our house, wait in a line to store’s checkout and in many other places and situations you would never consider reading. In theory, any eBook can not only be read but also listened to – and for me this is something. Wherever I go I promote them.

So - Thanks do David for starting such a beautiful discussion. I must admit though, that contrary to my convictions, most of debaters claimed that pBooks will not survive ...

Now - what do you think ?

BTW, It is quite common for David to ignite amazing fiery discussions. I can't forget the one about Umberto Eco and his idea of importance of lists and collections for creating culture...

And another one about Google's filtering and the meaning of their search results...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Cat's cradle - Mega Mockery of our societies ...

Kurt's Vonnegut "Cat's Cradle" is one of the strangest books I've ever read.

The plot starts quite innocently with the narrator presenting himself as a writer planning to write a book about the American nuclear bomb inventor. This goal has perfect sense and is aimed at showing how "normal" was the life of those who, by their activity, created means to kill masses of people. In his pursuit, the narrator makes friends within the family and co-workers of the bomb inventor. They may hide the great secret of late father of the bomb - the mysterious Ice-9.
At this stage of the narration a fictional religion of Bokononism is introduced, with is fundamental concept of karass - the group of people, who are working together to fulfil God's will.

The plots goes crazy when the narrator arrives to a fictional island of San Lorenzo. Here, the events spiral quite fast. Shortly after arrival he is offered to become the president of the nation of the island - and he accepts that post, being in love with the women who was destined to be the wife of the president. Just at the moment of his inauguration as the president, the small plane crashed at the rock on which presidential palace stood and that crash ignited the sequence of events ending in the ultimate cataclysm with almost all the population of the island gone and with all water transformed at room temperature into hard ice after the spillage of Ice-9 in the accident.

Through this crazy plot, Vonnegut tells the most ironic refutation of our society, military pursuit, political system, "forbidden fruit" man-made religions and cults. The most important of those is the mockery of man-made religions. Bokononism, invented for the purpose of the novel, reveals so close resamblance to some cults and sectarian groups that we can only marvel about Vonnegut's wit and Machiavellian wisdom...

And I remembered _The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon_, which I had read in its entirety the night before. _The Fourteenth Book_ is entitled, "What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?"
It doesn't take long to read _The Fourteenth Book_. It consists of one word and a period.

This is it:

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Billy Pilgrim’s (modified) theory of time ...

Slaughterhouse No 5 is absolutely incredible novel. It is the second novel in my life (after Zusak’sThe Book Thief”) that I reread again almost immediately after the first reading.

So it went.

I did it on the trip to Paris, and finished it at the CDG airport before the flight to London.

I want to shed some light on the theory of time that is embedded in the book. Traditional view on the time assumes that only present truly exists. Past does not, because it has just past and is not there anymore. Future does not because it is not there yet. According to Billy Pilgrim (the novel main character), or rather to his teachers on planet Tralfamadore, the time exists in its full reality:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

In the novel, Billy travels in time, back and forward, essentially abolishing the faith and the need for free will – because the future is as rigid and unchangeable as is the past. No one can do anything about it.


Would-would you mind telling me,' he said to the guide, much deflated, 'what was so stupid about that?' 'We know how the Universe ends,' said the guide, 'and Earth has nothing to do with it, except that it gets wiped out, too.' 'How-how does the Universe end?' said Billy. 'We blow it up, experimenting with new fuels for our flying saucers. A Tralfamadorian test pilot presses a starter button, and the whole Universe disappears.' So it goes. "If You know this," said Billy, 'isn't there some way you can prevent it?
Can't you keep the pilot from pressing the button?' 'He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.

However, even knowing this from his teachers, “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time”. Billy finally grasped the idea of time and acquired the ability to perceive the time in the new way, after he was taught how primitive his earthling notion of time was:

There was a lot that Billy said that was gibberish to the Tralfamadorians, too. They couldn't imagine what time looked like to him. Billy had given up on explaining that. The guide outside had to explain as best he could. The guide invited the crowd to imagine that they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear. They could look at a peak or a bird or a cloud, at a stone right in front of them, or even down into a canyon behind them. But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe. This was only the beginning of Billy's miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, And there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the dot at the end of the pipe. He didn't know he was on a flatcar, didn't even know there was anything peculiar about his situation. The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped-went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightaways. Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, 'That's life.'

Now, let me for a bit of more serious thought...

I don’t like the idea of total determinism and a negation of free will. I think, it is exactly for the human free will, that we cannot travel into the future. There are also serious physical arguments against such ideas, all of them having roots in the third law of thermodynamics — in the very notion of entropy.

But I like the idea of the past having its existence. The past, all the events of yesterday, last year, last century last era – simply exist. The nature of its existance is, of course, different from the existence of this table or of ourselves, but it still has many enduring existential attributes.

The past events are petrified, trapped like bugs in an amber, in some mysterious fabric called “the past”.
For ages, equipped only with our memory, we did not have means to see it, but today we have. It probably started with photography and evolved through movies to Flicker’s shots, Youtube’s reels and Twitter’s tweets. More and more we have means to go back and to see clearly, to contemplate all the moments of the past, as they were, and – as they are – unchangeable, trapped like in amber, but ... no less beautiful than the present....

Time can be visualized as unfolding dynamic tree. At present, as “a fork” it bifurcates into zillions of branches, each branch being a different possibility for events to happen, words to utter, gestures to make, steps to walk... But once this fork moves forward, the branch becomes like a fossil, petrified and impossible to change.

I guess one could even built morality and ethics on this concept of time. No one wants to have his bad deeds and bad decisions recorded and permanently available for reading. But, like it or not, they are. There is no escape from this. So, one should try to have only good deeds of his to stay trapped in the amber of the past. That’s the simple base for morality.

Is it ?

Written in London at 4.35 AM on November 9th – during a sleepless night. Unstuck in time....

Monday, November 02, 2009

New Idiana Jones style fable or genuine story by Tudor Parfitt ?

"The Lost Ark of the Covenant" by Tudor Parfitt is a controversial book. The very selection of the theme, the quest for traces of Lost Ark of Covenant, the most sacred physical object in the entire biblical narrative - is controversial by itself.

No wonder, after Indiana Jones or Paul's Sussman "The Last Secret of the Temple" it is hard to write about the Ark without falling or into scholarly-historic-archeological style or into a kind of Indiana Jones thriller. When you read it however, you find both notes — sometimes the melody is like it was to accompany Indiana Jones — sometime you hear a song of true scholar...

The book describes the author's life-long quest for the biblical Lost Ark of Covenant. However, unlike the many other quests, Parfitt, from the very beginning shows his preference for the hypothesis of African trail of the Ark. And for good. He is a very well known advocate of the theory that assumes that the African tribe of Lemba, where a Judaic trend is not only clearly visible, but was also confirmed by 1996 genetic studies, was directly responsible for preservation of the Ark.

The book becomes a real page turner when it describes apparently futile, long adventurous and dangerous trip through Yemen and later, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. In another chapter he goes after the Judaic trails in Papua, New Guinea. This episode, however, portraying a tribe that only recently revoked cannibalism, goes too far toward "Indiana Jones" melody...

However, in other parts, particularly those devoted to the Ark itself, called ngoma lungundu by Lemba people he writes in a very good scholarly but not entirely dull, tone. The Ark, according to Parfitt was in fact ... a drum, a horrifying musical instrument and the ancient weapon of mass destruction.

The book concludes when after long and desperate search he finally identifies ngoma lungundu in a dusty, mice-ridden storeroom of the Harare Museum of Human Science in Zimbabwe. The carbon dating finds the drum comes from XIV century, but despite the date itself - Parfitt claims it was replica of the original Ark.

However controversial or fantastic Parfitt claims is - the conclusion of the book is nice to read. There are no fanfares, no pseudo-religious boosting - there is just a moldy drum, sitting in a dusty museum storeroom, which author believes IS the true Ark's duplicate made in XIV century...

For many, this conclusion may be fantastic, stupid or, at least — non-biblical, but the finale of the book shows some decency and truth seeking attitude of the author. No stupid Indiana Jones tones any more...

Good, recommended book !!!

See its good review in Time.