Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ode to the geek

The true power of the geek is that of being capable of taking ownership of its environment and circumstances, and not be afraid to introduce the changes that may be necessary. This ownership is not exercised in a tyrannical myopic and destructive way, but rather in a comprehensive way. In a way in which the scratch complements the itch, and fulfils it, but does not leave a rash behind. This is due to a profound understanding of the space in which the itch is present. The myopic decision-making that generally contributes to the destruction out of an over simplification or of a fiduciary drive disregards the itch in order to consider it as an opportunity. This difference from itch to opportunity is what has driven a lot of the big business but it fails to take place in a world in which to be in touch with reality, the reality that incommensurable values bring, is a lot more valuable. It is then to look at the world as a space in which we live, as a place which supplies and environment for our existence, as a vessel that contains us, that feeds us and clothes us, not as a mine from which we extract all that we want without returning its due. As a place from where we can watch the stars, and not count them to impose on them a virtual ownership. As a big roller-coaster ride that provides us with our joys and our sadness and all the experiences that we live. A place in which love comes out of understanding and experience. Out of opening the mind to imagination and itching the way through life fixing one problem at a time. With each problem and each solution, finding a new understanding, a new element that makes us proud of who we are in the space that we have transformed, out of a selfless act of creation. The geek gives more than takes, for the geek understands its environment. It is an intellectual in a modern age in which the language and knowledge are technological, but not devoid of a human component.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The subtle interplay of Information and Immortality.

As humans we aim for the only thing that we truly cannot have, immortality. The only thing that remains after our existence is information. But information needs a support. The only place in which it is truly alive is in our heads. Computers have gone along way, they are good at storing and transmitting but true inference and creativity through intuition is still miles away.

As it stands the only shot at attaining immortality that humans have is information on two different supports genes and memes. Or ideas if you prefer the old fashioned term. Those are the only ways of leaving a imprint past our existence. In Milan Kundera's novel Immortality the main character seeks immortality in the media using it a as a tool to spread his ideas, yet being caught in the frenzy he is just a fad, and the true pain starts when he realises. It is always painful to realise its own mortality, forcing us to seek other ways of achieving the same goal through alternative routes.

The information represented as both genes and memes make for very different legacies. Each one of them fulfills very different roles. Genes shape our bodies, vehicles of our physical existence. What they perpetuate are our physical traits. Through much of the last century after the discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick. And later the genetic code we have some understanding of how our bodies are made and how the information that drives the process is stored interpreted and propagated through time. Also much understanding has gone into the role that genes play in certain illnesses. Besides giving us a shot at immortality it has also allowed us to improve our standards of living and to better diagnose certain illnesses.

On the other side Memes are stored in language which may itself be persisted in another form of representation. But it is only inside peoples minds that they are manipulated, and that new ideas can be created. Their spreading and storage is greatly helped by technology. A considerable amount of effort has gone into developing such technologies. Making more and more patent our drive for immortality. Memes are exchanged, traded and valued in our civilisation with great repercussions, the next evolution of mankind will be driven by how we deal with public or common knowledge. On how we share the ideas and on how we benefit from their implementations.

We have then that the two ways of passing on information that makes us, hence perpetuating ourselves, are in two completely different realms ruled by different rules. In Espinoza's ethics the restrictions between the two realms are made quite clear. An idea can only be bound by another idea, and a physical object can only be bound by another physical object. Once we start implementing an idea it creates artefacts that obey to the restrictions of the physical world. This does not apply to the representation of the idea, just to the artefact originating from its implementation. So if we apply this restriction to us, unless our minds can modify the genes, and the genes our minds the two ways of passing on our legacy are completely independent and can not interfere with each other. This is not so black and white, obviously, we know from science that there are interactions between the two. And more and more is know about those, but we will deal with those later. For know it will suffice to say that the body and soul duality still holds to scrutiny if we look at things as Spinoza did.

But why did we come to develop such an idea, why has that problem plagued philosophy for such a long time. Duality appears as a natural consequence of our perception.

At the end of the day we have no awareness of the internals of our bodies. There are few sensations that transcend that barrier. Most of them are hard to describe in the form of a discomfort or pain.

Further we do not have a blueprint or a mechanism to consciously alter our bodies. We can not do things like re-route nerves after an injury, slow our heart or breathing rates to a determined pace. We can, through controlling our ideas, relax our bodies, but that is a capacity which requires practice. If not our bodies are mostly in auto-pilot serving the desires of our minds. The mind driving at a very distant level. It is this lack of awareness and rational control which builds in our perception the fact that our ideas are separate from our physical bodies.

In reality our existence is traumatic, we displace the world around us but inside the physical shell we have a void of perception. This emptiness is due to how we perceive. We only perceive the out not the in. Leading us to believe that the world of ideas can not filtrate into the physical world. Since that is not possible in the thing that we are the most used to, our bodies. Hence setting up a frontier demarcating two worlds. But it is not impermeable as Espinoza would have it.

The same way that an artefact can be the implementation of an idea, in the human body a mood can affect the health and a chemical imbalance create a depression. These crossings of world boundaries are due to causal relationships in the functioning of the physical world. That is, ideas are an epiphenomenon of the functioning of the brain. This creates a one way causal relationship. However from the perspective of the ideas the transition implies a change of rules between the elements on each side of the boundary. Ideas are restricted by ideas and physical bodies are restricted by physical bodies or so was the idea of Espinoza. The boundary is broken in the other direction, or at least it appears so, when an artefact is created. For this the constraints of the physical world are internalised, to make sure that the artefact is possible. This is generally called thinking ahead. This is possible due to capability of abstracting away from the real world in order to manipulate ideas according to the physical reality. This of course requires practice, but it is where Espinoza stops or at least the simplistic understanding we had of his postulates for his ethics.

This capacity for abstraction that the mind is capable off, that is of abstracting and making symbols out of the perceived reality, is the core of the premise of I am a Strange Loop by Hofstadter. The world of ideas being more flexible can incorporate the physical world and can help manipulate it. We do not have control over which of our genes we pass on. At least not naturally though we have developed technologies to do so. Again following this drive of becoming if not immortals passing on the best of us. But we do have a big saying into what are the ideas that we pass on. For that it suffices to publish them or to act according to them. The former being less likely to leave an imprint but much easier to control.

Of course the only way to strive for immortality is to believe that we are immortal. To ignore our mortal condition in a truly decadent way and go through our existence as if nothing happened. But that is of course unreal, it is part of dealing with the trauma of existence that we forge such mechanism. Illness or death puts things into perspective and points towards the only true immortality, that of information.

Illness also bears a close relation to the information that we pass on. Illness is implicitly and explicitly genetic. In that illness is a reaction of the body to an internal or external stimulus being the expression of the genes, in an environment. It hence the genes or their mechanisms of expression, also described in the genes, that bring about the illness. Illness can also prevent the passing on of the genes, hence our impossibility to be immortal.

The role of memes in illness more subtle. There is mental illnesses which can be due to a physical problem. A chemical imbalance in the brain generates or fosters certain kinds of thoughts which are then recognised as symptoms. Certain medications have effects of cognitive nature, euphoria, mood swings etc. The one way boundary crossing from physical problem to mental symptom is clearly established. The other direction presents more and more evidence. It is now known that a good mood helps the recovery. However the ideas of mentally ill person, unless of ground breaking nature, think Nietzsche, will also be regarded with caution. Much like knowing that a partner has a genetic condition.

So where does this leave us, or to be more correct where does this leave our existence. We are nothing but the interplay of information. Information in the shape of ideas and genes which we only get to be aware off when they do not work. When we realise in our decadent approach that we are not immortal. Realising that our only shot at immortality is to ensure that our true nature, information, in one way or the other is what will remain. This is obviously painful if not traumatic to realise. This pain lying inside the world of ideas can only be addressed by coming to grasp what reality is. And this can only be done through the interaction with others. Through the realisation that indeed all we are is the emerging property of the interplay of information in different forms. One in the physical world, the other amongst other human beings based on language, and ideas.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Its early in Valencia for fallas

The few of you that follow me on twitter would have realised that I have been very active. More than usual. The reason is related to my last post, and what has been happening in Valencia.
I mentioned last week that several schools of the region where without heating because they simply lacked the funds to pay the bill. Well last Friday students from one of those secondary schools called "Lluis Vives", after a local humanist of the 16th century, decided to go outside and protest about the fact that they are cold in the classroom and that further educational cuts are planned. The police charged, and that against students aged 12 to 17. Several students where arrested, and the overal strength of the charge was deemed disproportionate (Even the police union wants to investigate the use of disproportionate force). The students arrested remained in custody without charge for over 24h. Their parents outside the police station waiting for them to be processed. As Mònica Oltra, local politician and lawyer, puts it in this video "In a democracy we should be rewarding these kids that instead of being at home playing on their game consoles, are protesting for the right to a decent education [...] We have students that are protesting for the future of their country and the authorities do not know how to handle the situation".

At the heart of all this lies the incapability of the local government  authority Paula Sánchez de León who did not handle with sufficient importance the early onset of the portest. She was quoted that all of this was expected to be an "anecdote".  The latest news of today are that Paula Sánchez de León has opened and instruction on the police forces in order to determine if there was abusive force, and the responsible people will be held accountable.

The change of heart is due amongst others to the largest concentration of people ever seen in valencia to date. The whole city was this afternoon collapsed. Images of such large amounts of people blocking the city are not uncommon in Valencia. They happen, every year, during las fallas, traditional festivity during which fireworks are the key ingredient. We even have a firework display that happens daily on the town hall square at midday. Since its during daylight there is no use for colours, what matters is the sound. We call this firework display the "Mascleta". A masclet is the name in Valencian for a firework, but it translates to the diminutive of male.   The streets you see in the youtube video are the same ones that where filled today by peaceful people protesting for the lack of funds in education. And the sentence the two girls, the queens of the fallas, the same one depicted in the image that goes with this blog post. "Fireworks master, the Mascleta can begin."

Another tradition in fallas is that out of the fallas, which are also the structures of papier mache that are burnt on the night of Saint Joseph, two of the characters, called "ninots", are saved from the flames.
"Ninot" could be translated as male doll, but when you use it towards someone it has a negative connotation which is better conveyed in English as muppet.
The two indulged "Ninots" are chosen by the queens of the party, the same you see shouting in the youtube video. Well this year fallas came early and the two muppets that got indulged where Francisco Camps, which last week got a doctoral title in Law, and Ricardo Costa, both local politicians with a lot to say about the fact that local secondary schools are without funds.

As you can see in a city in which the highlight of the parties is torching sculptures, and doing firework displays in broad daylight, the people decided to relate to their festivities when the reality has become truly Kafkian. It is indeed early in Valencia for fallas, Saint Joseph is on the 19th or March.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Spain is hurting

I would have to start this post by asking forgiveness from all the people I have lied to in the last few years.
I have repeatedly told people that I was only Spanish by passport. Well I guess I was trying to convince myself of that.
I have also told on occasion that I had no country, because of the political and historical make up of the region I was born in.  The rest of my cultural identity having been conformed by the places that I have lived since I was born.
The recent developments in Spanish politics have made Spain hurt, so if home is where the heart is, home is hurting a lot right now.

The first cut is the deepest. It was nearly a year ago when ACPV, (Acció Cultural del Paìs Valencia) cultural association of the region, was forced to shut down a signal repeater that was broadcasting TV3, the Catalan regional television, in  Valencia. I grew up watching TV3 since they started the broadcast, in an illegal pirate way ,in the late 80s. The cultural and political aim of such an initiative was to start bringing culturally and linguistically both regions together. It comes from a long removed part of the history in which both regions where part of the same kingdom, which allowed for the common language to be spread between the two regions. The history of that repeater is symptomatic of the situation. When in the mid 90s Valencia got its own regional television Canal 9 it started broadcasting on exactly the same frequency as TV3. We are talking analogue TV broadcast at the time there where only 4 channels, so hardly an overcrowded spectrum. It was a political decision to broadcast on the same frequency. More than 20 years later Francisco Camps got finally for the repeater to be shut down, after having modified the legislation of Valencia, in order to have grounds for fining ACPV for the illegal broadcasting to the extent that they had to shut down the broadcast or file for bankruptcy.  

Then recently the same Francisco Camps, was acquitted by a popular jury from a whole collection of corruption and public fund mismanagement charges. In the middle of this charges was the case of 3 suits which he received as presents paid for from a company involved in a national corruption network nicknamed Gürtel. Hold onto that name it will come back. Two weeks before he was acquitted when the evidence was more than compelling to convict. This is not my opinion much of the press coverage surrounding the court case. Camps regional government, among other cases, set up a water purification plant for the city of Valencia in which the 5th out of 3 water treatment basins gets regularly serviced. No, I did not forget my maths, that is how the invoicing is done. Meanwhile F1 races where being done in Valencia, the Americas cup held, and the pope visited Valencia, public money was being splurged all over and into the pockets of a select few. As a brief example it shall suffice to say that there was several bills amounting to more than half a million euros for cleaning up Valencia after the papal visit.
It is funny then that most of the cleaning was done by voluntaries and organised by local charities, which did not see a single cent.

In the few weeks that Camps was in court several secondary schools had to shut down the heating due to lack of funds to play for the fuel or gas. This was all happening last January. So we have money for F1 races and servicing non-existing water treatment basins, but not for the heating of public schools.
If these where only a local thing people may laugh, at the end of the day the Sicilians still blame the Borbon's for the creation of the Cosa Nostra. I will skip another local case, the one of Marina D'or and the airport of Castellón. Suffice it to say that Carlos Fabra regional politician, never got indicted because the judges in the instructed tribunal kept on changing every few years.  This case I leave as an exercise to the reader. It is easily googleable and google translate can give you an idea. If interested further I am happy to supply links in replies to any comment.

The trouble gets worse when going inland. At the end of the day my great-grandmother use to say. "Thief the one that was, thief the one that is, and thief the one that will be" [in power].
I mentioned earlier a corruption case being built at a national level, the Gürtel case. Camps was the first person to be trialed from that body of evidence. All of the other indicted people admitted guilt and paid a fine. But not Camps, he got acquitted. Well the judge that built the case Baltasar Garzón has now been trialed and found guilty of perjury. At the core of this there are several elements. Garzón is a progressive judge, he was the one that built the case for the detention and extradition of Pinochet out of the UK and back to Chile.  He has also been one of the most active judges in the fight against terrorism. Terrorism from both sides, both the Basque separatist group ETA and the publicly funded GAL. The GAL case was instrumental in getting the socialists out of power. Felipe Gonzalez had by then been president of the Spanish government for 14 years. The GAL case was effectively a case of dirty war against terrorism. The Spanish intelligence services where passing on evidence to a group of military and Guardia Civil that would then kidnap, kill and threaten alleged terrorists or their families all without trial nor due process. This all occurred during the 80s. Well Garzón, no rookie at this stage, was building up a corruption case against members of the Partido Popular. Instrumental to building that case where the wire-tapping of conversation between detainees and their lawyers in prison. Such conversations according to the Spanish legislation can be recorded and used as evidence in a court of law, if a judge deems it appropriate. But as with all laws they are open to interpretation, and on the basis of the interpretation of an "and" to be conjunctive or disjunctive there are two possible course of action. A group of extreme right decided to bring denounce such wiretapping as illegal, based on one of the interpretations. Well A judge accepted the case, and since its a case against a judge it has to be trialled at the highest instance. The sentence was reached, following the same line of reasoning as the instructing case, and sending a signal that if you do not think like us you are committing perjury.

One would think that in a democracy judges ought to do their work, and the judiciary be an independent power. Well in this case the control from a certain spectrum of the Spanish politics has been so internalised in the institution that there is no need for the party in power to say anything. Judges just fall, and convictions are not made. The newly elected Partido Popular has a lot of the people now in public positions being indicted out of the corruption that occurred in the last time they where in power, the Gürtel case. So if you want to see some drama, and see what happens when the conflict of a civil war is never resolved, tune into Spain and its recent politics. You will not be disappointed. I would even dare say that Berlusconi's Italy had a certain aura of magical realism, since there was one strong figure. In Spain now its an old ghost that never rested in peace and that rises its ugly head incarnated in different people. This ghost just rubs the salt in the wounds that where never closed. I guess that's why Spain in hurting so much.      

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Modernity and the internet

Being truly modern the way Voltaire was in his philosophical letters, is to not consider ones traditions or norms as the only referent.The whole uniqueness of a tribe or folk just flies out the window with modernity. Then what is more modern than the Internet?
Where can one encounter the most varied information about culture and the way other people think and act. What is youtube if not a living repository of cultural activity? What is the blogosphere if not a repository of memes and ideas?

The work of Pierre Levy is then seminal in the definition of the anthropomorphic space that the Internet represents. It is a space in which ideas are detached from their human creators and can be shared freely. But it is only a repository which can be mined and harvested.  It does not derive or deduce new ideas out by itself. There again the work of Pierre Levy with IEML may open some new perspectives for expanding the reasoning capabilities of mankind. If these are the capabilities of the most modern creation or making what are its issues. The issues are not inherent to the Internet, we have a quasi infinite firmament of ideas.  The issues then appear when trying to find models in which to capitalise from that firmament. Well it makes sense that we are having trouble making money from the stars no?

The novelty of the anthropomorphic space that the Internet represents is so big that most of the models that we approach it with seem to break. It could be seen as a tool of communication between people.
Much like the standard press or billboards.  As such it is easy to capitalise on it as a trade channel.
What have humans been doing since the origins of time if not trade? Trade can be conducted across all barriers (geographical, linguistic, temporal) and has generated wealth and stability in many regions of the planet. So it makes sense that when confronted with a new space what we do is trade.

But to trade you need objects.
Ideas until very recently have not been free, they where always attached to a support. The support was bought, sold, traded as the objectification of the idea. Books where paid for, journals and magazines too. So for centuries the support paid for the ideas that it contained.
This object idea relationship is now fading away as the digital support in which ideas are now developed, stored and communicated changes its properties. It is no longer a tangible object.
Ideas are now stored as what they are, patterns. Patterns on a digital medium which can no longer be objectified. Out of the breaking of that relationship the whole model of trade breaks. And when such a basic relationship as trade disappears from the space, people panic. Out of this panic people have been trying to revert to the old object idea relation. What is a patent, if not just that, the tradeable objectification of an idea.

The current importance of copyright and copyright law is nothing more that an attempt at bringing a useless legacy into a new environment.  Holding on to a past and preventing mankind from flourishing.

It is as if when Voltaire was in London and writing his letters back to France he would be telling that in the London stock exchange people where segregated by religion. That a Christian could only trade with a Christian. That the Jew would only accept "Tov" as his contract word, and that the money of the one was not receivable by the other. It is now time to become truly modern and move on from this narrow mindedness. To embrace in the same way the new anthropomorphic space that is enabling us to reach a newer level of togetherness. Trade and finance have brought us so far, and they will not disappear, but the introduction of the collective intelligence should not be held back by stale models. The same way that refusing to trade with someone based on a difference of creed sounds backwards. Years from now paying for an idea based on its support will be inconceivable.

The struggle for modernity is well set, and it is now the struggle to free ideas from their medium.
The current SOPA, PIPA and ACTA struggles are clumsy attempts to objectify ideas based on deprecated models. However, these struggles are indicative of on which side the current social structures are leaning towards. If power is not at the forefront of modernity it may have the control of the resources but not the agreement of the many and in a new and uncharted territory as the Internet is people get very creative.

Ideas should be the stars that guide the evolution of our civilisation, towards rewards which are fare greater than what we can imagine now. Not objectified slaves of the accumulation of trade.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Enough with star counting.

The basic idea behind enoughism, is that since we have now evolved in the western world technologies to feed clothe ourselves there is not longer need to amass things beyond what is necessary. We can estimate what is necessary for our daily living achieve that point, plus minus some contingencies, obtain it, and consume it. As part of that many practical elements can be brought. Jonh Naish in his book Enough coins the term, introduces the motivation and offers practical alternatives.

For example there is no need for an over the board holiday in which most of our savings go every year. A mini break, of a commute out on Friday, commute back in on Monday morning ought to be more than enough. If you posses a high paid skill all that is needed is indeed to work enough to sustain yourself for the year, and spend the rest of the time homing that skill to the next level. It all makes perfect sense, but the elements at stake here are larger than that. It is indeed an evolutionary coping mechanism that has brought around this hogging or amassing behaviour that is best identified in the start counter, the business man, of The Little Prince.

The analogy is indeed very powerful as it makes the amassing of wealth appear, as what it is, stupid. The little prince in his travels among little planets encounters a businessman who is busy counting.
When asked by the little prince as to why he does it. The man replies that he is counting because then there are his and he can put the number in a piece of paper in the drawer for safe keeping. The little prince inquires then as to what he is counting. The businessman does not really care as to what he counts, he barely remembers the name. He is counting stars.

Like the stars in The Little Prince resources are there for all. Who are we to put a name on them and on the basis of that fake ownership amass more of them. Just like counting stars, that is all we are doing in our modern society, putting a name behind something that is common. Enoughism in this respect does not go far enough, it only states that you have to share, and its much easier to share by letting other people use what you do not consider yours than to retroactively give what has already been yours. Charity, as Zizek puts it, has become the redeeming force of capitalism, you can now buy a coffee ethic at Starbucks and even Lidl has fair trade instant coffee. But again this only helps redeem the fact that we are amassing wealth, in a way which is depriving others.

Our planet is finite, no matter how big the resources are. This finiteness of the resources has not been taken into account in many models and in many studies. As for the business man all that matters is the count, right?  It is true that when tackling a complex problem certain simplifications have to be introduced, without abstraction and reduction the problem may not be solvable. But the awareness that the solution at hand is indeed only a partial solution with certain validity bounds and certain constraints is what is missing. The joke of Jaimito reminds me of this.

The teacher asks the students during the lesson:
- We have an electricity cable, with 5 birds on it. We take a shotgun and shoot two of them. How many birds are left on the cable?
To which Jaimito replies:
- None, miss.
- Jaimito, you must be joking. Think again. We have 5 birds, and we shoot two.
How many are there left?
- Miss, I do not know how well you shoot but after the first shot, even if you hit them both, all the other three would have flown away.

 That is indeed the problem, through the simplification, and the application of abstractions to solve problems the track has been lost back to the original set-up of the problem. If we abstract away in the joke of Jaimito that they are birds on a cable, and only focus on the maths, the answer that the teacher demands is indeed the correct.  But in reality the answer that Jaimito gives is the one that matters.

If we extrapolate this to a very complex derivative or other financial artefact, any relation to the real world is gone by the time it is applied. The businessman only counts, and as he counts he forgets what he is counting. Regulation or regulatory bodies could take on that role, but even then, are they really doing that?

 Enoughism is a good start, but it is indeed a sort of charitable drive which prevents you from putting on your name things that you do not really need. But the stars being counted and being put under each one of our names is something that really brings about the stupidity of the system we live in. How that stupidity came about is very simple, we rely on abstraction without an understanding of what is beneath it. That is what allows us to advance, to progress as a society, but when dealing with the world a better global understanding is necessary.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Reflections on finance

A fiend of mine has started illustrating over at his blog with quite a lot of cleverness the concepts of modern life.

This illustration of the mortgage is indeed very reflective of the times in which we live in.
Finance being a technology, like many other technologies, being applied for the first time in a way which hinders humanity. Nuclear power was first put to use as an weapon and out of the general understanding of the damage that it caused it was decided to try better ways of putting it to use.

Finance is now being put to use for gathering and concentrating wealth and we have seen the damage that it has done to our planet, and our well-being. However I do not see any of the people involved acknowledging that "Now we are all sons of bitches" like Kenneth Bainbridge commented to Los Alamos director J. Robert Oppenheimer, shortly after the first nuclear bomb exploded.
Without such a recognition of guilt the drive to use finance to purely profiteer will continue. What worries me most is that in the current case there is also a denial of the power that finance really has. If such an awareness was really present in the community de-regulation would not have been so thorough and the situation we are now in would have not been so bad.

The drive to use atomic energy as a weapon still persists today, and will for many years, so will the drive to use finance for egotistical means. However the admission of guilt and of the causes of the crises, whether through malevolence or incompetence needs to be acknowledged as a step to consider the greater picture and start doing what we can to heal the planet and our relationship with it.

If we learn our lesson, admit our guilt, from recent events and move towards applying distributing wealth the technology can be put to good use and benefit everyone. Much like a nuclear power plant powers homes and industries. It is not without risk of course, but if care is taken to mitigate it through regulation it is a great force.

I think it is time to understand really what finance is and what it can do to be put to the benefit of the world instead of crushing us and destroying our planet.