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Category Archives: Honourable Mentions

A brief mention of two books that I’ve been reading over the month of April. The first is Team of Rivals which is a biography of Abraham Lincoln. The second is Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. These are two American lives that have fascinated me. Two lives destined to belong to the ages. Read More »

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All blogs are equal; some blogs are more equal than others. These are my 10 favourite smart blogs:

  1. Seth’s Blog – Seth Godin is marketing whiz, ideas factory and book producing machine. He also has an eye-popping way of looking at the world with a fresh perspective. The blog is a distillation of ideas on what it means to do meaningful work in the modern world. You should expect your worldview to get challenged once a week at least.
  2. Marginal Revolution – This is a financial / economics blog on the face of it. With occasional digressions into books, cinema, and the strangeness of people. I also wonder if Tyler Cowen, its most prolific blogger, ever sleeps.
  3. Zen Habits – The king blog of taking life easy, working towards your goals and keeping it all balanced. Focused on the more human side of getting things done like motivation, procrastination and being realistic.
  4. The Browser – A little while back all the hype about Web 2.0 was about the culture of curation. The art of picking has reached a zenith in the Browser. Selecting, clipping, great quotes from all over the internet and flagging up dozens of fascinating articles a day. This is the ultimate source of interesting.
  5. Overcoming Bias – Blog by economist Robin Hansen about why we behave the way we do, see the things the way we do and what it all means when we do it. Hansen has a fascinating paradigm of how people behave and he applies it to a wide variety of situations. I struggle with many of his categorisations (near / far events; forager / farmer societies) but each post has an uncanny way of highlighting something peculiar about human behaviour.
  6. Barking Up the Wrong Tree – This blog exploded out of nowhere in 2009 into a firm favourite.  Another curation done right triumph. Eric Barker picks out interesting articles from the realms of psychology that reveal odd things about human nature. Like the fact that escalators make us better people (going up makes us more elevated in our behaviour). It’s endless recollection of how statistically strange people are is oddly comforting.
  7. Swiss Ramble – If you like football and you’re curious about the big picture then Swiss Ramble is a blog made in heaven. You might presume that a blog dedicated to the accounts of football clubs might be a tad dry. You would be wrong. Once you see a spreadsheet put into context by the shared ups and downs of a team and its fans, you’ll know why this is such compelling reading. A lot about why the game is the way it is becomes crystal clear when seen through this perspective.
  8. You Are Not So Smart – An attack on the common misconceptions we have about human nature and why they’re wrong, such as why we all have lists of movies we ‘intend’ to see but never get around to watching them. Insightful because you can spot yourself running into the same traps many of the time.
  9. Get Rich Slowly – There are two types of smart. There is gee whiz ‘oh my’ smart, and there is long term careful  smart. GRS is all about long term careful smart financial planning. I take a lot of my ideas on managing money and dealing with money from there including how to save sensibly for goals that you want to hit without spending too much on mindless consumerism.
  10. Steve Pavlina – Steve Pavlina is the ultimate source of lifestyle experimentation on the internet. If something sounds (sort of) reasonable and can be tried for 30 days he’s probably been there and got a write up about it. Prior experiments include things like polyphasic sleep (sleeping for 30 minutes only 4 times a day) which sound genuinely bonkers when you first hear about it and almost plausible after you’ve finished reading his posts.

I’m always on the lookout for more to add to the list: any recommendations?

What I really want to discuss is something I had been thinking a lot about the past week while reflecting (and reading Mulla Sadra).

Its the concept of Alastu Birabbikum Am I not your Lord from the Quran. A while ago I discussed Islamic existentialism the idea espoused by many Sufis that we were created by God, but that our consent was not asked before we were given existence.

It didn’t occur to me at the time, but Alastu Birrabikum addresses that point directly. God asks man Am I not your Lord and man responds Yes you are! thus giving consent to our subsequent placement upon the earth.

Why does consent matter? Because if you can argue that humans have no existential consent, then you can argue that you are not bound to pay attention to anything else that God expects (as that would be a case of God being unjust, which is considered contradictory).

Existential Consent « Ali Eteraz

INTRODUCTION

I’m about to jump off the deep end here. I don’t blog about philosophy or theology, but Ali Eteraz has touched upon something that has previously intrigued me in his discussion of the Quran’s depiction of the original covenant of Alastu Birabbikum between man and his Lord.

What intrigues me, at the risk of profound philosophical simplification and the intertwining two very disparate strands of thinking, is the parallel that can be drawn to one of the most famous ideas in liberal philosophy, John Rawls’ Original Position. 

I want to apply to this Islamic original covenant, the criticisms levelled by one of Rawls’ most prominent critics, Michael Sandle who very persuasively challenged many of the assumptions imbedded in Rawl’s Original Position.

I appreciate that Sandel’s criticisms of Rawls’ theory are very particular and are aimed at precise aspects of Rawls’s theory. They will not translate into a general critique of any philosophy based on an original position. However I believe that the underpinning of Sandel’s criticism, in its logical deconstruction of the assumptions underlying Rawls’ Original Position is a valuable to understanding and deconstructing the Covenant of Alastu Birabbikum

My impression is that Ali’s interpretation of the concept of Alastu Birabbikum raises far more questions than it answers. I certainly do not see how it can give an adequate answer to the question he posed. I qualify that conclusion by the simple remark that I’m not well educated on Islamic theology of any stripe. That is why I phrase these as questions rather than arguments; they are inquiries.

QUESTION ONE : I CONSENT, THEREFORE I AM

My first question draws on Descartes. As the French philosopher has famously written, “I think, therefore I am”. In this context of the Covenant of Alastu Birabbikum, one can say “I consent, therefore I am”. Which leads to the first difficulty. The self capable of consent must necessarily be created before he gives consent.  This initial creation has to be without consent. In the original position of Alastu Birabbikum, we are all present without our consent.

To phrase it another way, the order of events that must have occurred for the Covenant of Alastu Birabbikum as described is that mankind is created with an intellect capable of  comprehending the question that is to be put to him, and of giving a meaningful response. He is then retroactively asked to consent to this initial creation and to his subsequent worldly incarnation by recognising the superiority of his Lord.

It appears to me that all creation must be without the consent of the created. This conflicts with the voluntary contractual nature that is the ethos in the Covenant of Alastu Birabbikum.

I appreciate that this might be countered by arguing that the Covenant of Alastu Birabbikum may be acceptable in so far as it gives retroactive consent to our creation. I have my questions centred on the nature of the consent which raise at Question 3. At this stage though, I wish to deal further with the Self that is created.

QUESTION TWO : I AM, BUT WHAT KIND OF ‘I’?

This second question, and where I explicitly draw on Sandel, is that there must be sufficient connection between the self that consents at this stage and the self that is bound by that consent in this world by the Divine law. This is what Sandel calls the antecedently individuated self.

This comprises three aspects. The first is that a sufficient number of characteristics, including those aspects of me that my values and moral framework must exist in this Self so as to give a meaningful basis on which I could exercise any consent. Otherwise it could not properly be said that I have a choice. If I have no criteria on which to make a choice, and no means of obtaining any criteria, can you really be said to have made a choice?

The second aspect is that these Selfs must be sufficiently individuated. The characteristics that are present at this stage to form my Self must be sufficiently different from your Self. A general commitment to truth and justice does not suffice. A general acceptance of God’s superiority is not sufficient. Instead we have to have very specific descriptions of our means, goals, values and social context to give a sufficient differentiation so that, at the extreme, the consent of one twin brother might be distinguished from the consent of another.

The third aspect is that it is, to some extent, clear what is not there. Nothing that you have learned in this world can be with you there. After all at the point of the Covenant of Alastu Birabbikum, they are events that are to occur in your future. All the things that you have been taught by nurture, the things that you parents and teachers have taught you can not be with you at this point. To take that further, none of the morality or values that have been taught to you while you were in this world are with you then. Without digressing too far into the debate about nature versus nurture, it should be clear to all of us in a vast and global world, that it is easily possible for humans to have different moral codes and societal norms and that many of these norms are derived from nurture.

From my understanding, there simply isn’t enough information to answer any of these question. It may be that there exists a middle ground, where we are sufficiently individuated, sufficiently capable of existing as intellectual and moral beings and yet do so without drawing on anything worldly at all to reach this stage. It seems a tremendous intuitive leap though to accept this without having some sort of discussion to draw on.

QUESTION THREE : I’D CONSENT IF I COULD

My third question goes to the nature of the consent that we give. I think that it may be presumed that consent requires certain elements. It must be voluntary in that it is freely given. it must not be coerced from us. It must be a choice, in the meaningful sense that we can choose to consent or not consent and within reason we must understand what we are consenting to.

It’s not immediately clear that any of these elements is made out in the moment where the question of Alastu Birabbikum is asked.  It may be, as the reply of “bala, shahidna” indicates, an element of overwhelming obviousness in the answer. But that does not mean it is necessary that just because there is an obvious answer, no other answers should exist or be possible.

Let me take a moment to situate ourselves back in the proper context. We find ourselves freshly created, fully functional but standing before an immensely powerful being that has created from nothing all that exists. We are sufficiently human, it must be presumed, for there to be the possibility of choice and for us to be bound by that choice. That means as part of our rational self interest is engaged in making the choice.

The first issue then becomes do we even have a choice? Is there a possibility of saying no? And what happens to those who might do so, or even what happened to those who did?

The second issue then is what did we consent to? If we recognise the superiority of our Lord, do we automatically accept that his decisions, which confine us to the not so comfortable surroundings of this world are right simply based on that authority? Would we have accepted that authority if we had known the consequences? Did we know the consequences at all?

This leads to my third issue, the one most intimately entwined with Question Two. Did we know the true nature of our questioner? Did we realise that we are being asked to submit to the will of an almighty, but also infinitely just and merciful interlocutor? Was our consent based on our surety in his justice or mercy, or was it based on our fear of his wrath and power?

I HAVE NO ANSWERS

It appears to me that there is insufficient information to answer any of these questions. It may well be that the clarity and nature of our consent was sufficient to bind us even in this world, in circumstances so different from the realm of pre-existence where this question appears to have been asked.

In my humble opinion Ali’s interpretation of the concept of Alastu Birabbikum raises far more questions than it answers. I do not see how it can give an adequate answer to the question he posed nor address what seems to me the quite clear objection of the Sufi Existentialists he mentions in his post.  Rather it seems to me, that we must exist before our consent is given, and that all creation exists without consent.

But that to me, goes against both the contractarian nature of the Covenant  of Alastu Birabbikum, and against a perfectly omniscient and just Deity.

My current wallpaper and an interesting quote. Thought I’d share both with you.

 

‘Arranged’ marriages, characterized by strong parental control over mate choice, are the norm in India, although there is a steady transition towards autonomous ‘love’ marriages, especially within the urban middle class.

I construct a novel dataset by surveying 6,030 parents and adult children in Mumbai, India to study selection into arranged marriage and its effects on spouse choice. I consider the choice between an arranged and love marriage as the outcome of bargaining between parents and children, where agents have different preferences for spouse attributes.

I find that stronger financial and kinship ties between parents and sons increase the likelihood of an arranged marriage. Furthermore, when parents are involved in mate choice, sons are significantly less likely to marry college-educated women and women engaged in the labor force, after controlling for individual and family characteristics.

I show that these effects are driven, at least in part, by parental preferences and cannot entirely be attributed to correlation between arranged marriages and unobserved characteristics. These results suggest that lowering the incentive for parental control in mate choice may improve investments in women’s human capital in India.

Divya Mathur – Research

Interesting huh? Especially that last paragraph is a bit surprising, given the focus on Mumbai, which I would have thought would be that bit more progressive than other cities as it is India’s financial hub.

This is the synopsis of a research paper written by  Divya Mathur who is a PhD candidate for Economics at the University of Chicago. This is the full original paper, which makes interesting reading. I skimmed through it and its definitely worth coming back to in depth.

Lastly, a shout out to Tyler Cowen and the phenomenal economics blog Marginal Revolution for bringing this to my attention. If you have an inclination to keep up with one of the most internet friendly and sharp minds in economics, you need to read Marginal Revolution. It also helps if you have an appreciation of how bizarre the world can truly be.

I’ve always liked darker themes compared to the light and bright ones.

I saw that Ali Eteraz had switched to this a while back and when I realised it was available on WordPress.com I’ve been debating with myself whether to switch. I’ve decided that I’ll commit to the change.

I’m particularly taken with the  bright orange. I like bright orange  as a colour because I associate it with irreverent exuberance and its the only “in your face” colour that you’re ever likely to find me wearing. My inclination to dandyism is weak, but it is there.

That said, you may disagree and feel that the previous theme was better. If so, speak now or hold your peace….

This is totally me.

“Personal relationships, particularly romantic ones, can be the INTJ’s Achilles heel. While they are capable of caring deeply for others (usually a select few), and are willing to spend a great deal of time and effort on a relationship, the knowledge and self-confidence that make them so successful in other areas can suddenly abandon or mislead them in interpersonal situations.

This happens in part because many INTJs do not readily grasp the social rituals; for instance, they tend to have little patience and less understanding of such things as small talk and flirtation (which most types consider half the fun of a relationship). To complicate matters, INTJs are usually extremely private people, and can often be naturally impassive as well, which makes them easy to misread and misunderstand.

Perhaps the most fundamental problem, however, is that INTJs really want people to make sense. This sometimes results in a peculiar naivete,  …the INTJ will expect inexhaustible reasonability and directness.”

Taken from : INTJ Profile

What’s your type? Take the test

I’ve always liked personality tests. I guess its part of that whole wanting people to make sense thing.

Every beginning is a consequence – every beginning ends some thing.  – Paul Valery

I titled this post almost two months ago. And then I never did anything to write it out. I figure now is the moment to put this into words. Tonight there was an interesting little conversation going on about the cutting edge of Internet technology, and I realized that I had become, really become, one of those luddites who can’t move on to anything new and can’t recognize anything that’s going to be hip and cutting edge.

Gareth is in the habit of bombarding me daily with links to YouTube. A new little clip, a music video, some people doing something incredibly dumb things, the latest football wondergoal and so on. For a little while I tried to get with the flow and watch them. Internet video was so ubiquitous and so hyped that you had to at least be going with the flow on something as non-contentious as this.

I tried to accept that the internet had grown again with the rise of true broadband. People were broadcasting themselves, and posting huge amounts of content online. A video of everything and too often anything, could be found if you were willing to apply the right keywords at one of the video sites.

I found quite soon, that this trend was one I wasn’t going to accept. I couldn’t do it. Watching a video of the internet, on sites like YouTube or Google Video just didn’t appeal to me. They were slow, jerky, low quality and had a certain B- sense of production values that made them unappealing ways to spend my time.

Most importantly I didn’t have the patience to sit through loading times, and to try and find and understand all the weird options and controls these sites seem to have. It just wasn’t grabbing my attention enough.

Partly I suspect that’s the medium, I’ve never been much of a video person as it is, preferring books and my own inner world to the outer worlds simulacrums of entertainment, pre-designed and pre-packaged to reflect nothing of the real world.

Partly I suspect that it’s the patience. I don’t have enough of that anymore to sit through a five-minute presentation that is of no relevance and little informative value to me. Most music vids are by definition in that category.

Most significantly, and therefore buried at the bottom of the list, by which I’m hoping you won’t get this far as you’ll have given up long ago confronted by the mounds, walls, ramparts of text that I erect between my meaning and my beginnings, it was all just too different and required too many changes to the way I dealt with the web. I couldn’t be bothered to make those changes.

Other applications have met similar fates. Del.icio.us held me for a few hours before I abandoned it for good. Technorati was a curiosity that didn’t take at all after the first day.Twitter, well I got halfway through using it for the first time before it was abandoned. These are the household names of the Web 2.0 scene. The big boys that everyone has heard of even if they’ve not come out in favor of them.

In fact I think the only two new things that I have taken on board has been Google Reader and the RSS revolution that unleashed for me. It made things so much more easier and efficient, that I don’t know how I would manage now if I had to manually scan through all the sites that are now bought to be via their feeds without me doing any work in finding them.

The second is Facebook. I think what keeps me on that is a certain mixture of apathy and convenience. Apathy because it genuinely is a good way to keep up with some people, especially the addicts. Convenience because so many people use it now, that it’s almost used as an organizational tool for groups, and though I’m not part of many, I am tangential to a few that do me the honor of remembering I exist from time to time.

The consolation I offer myself is that I have reached what I pretend is a mature view. I add those things to my life that are making an actual improvement to it, but making things both more convenient and easier to get things done. Technology is no longer my interest but my tool. I use it to get other things done that I wish to see accomplished. When it helps me do that I integrate it into my life. Where it fails, I discard; and await  something appropriate to be bought to my attention.

That’s what I hope I’m doing. I don’t want to be a grumpy old man, set in his ways at 22. Not on something as dynamic and challenging as the internet. Nor in the rest of life. It’s too soon for that. Too soon.

“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.” 
Dale Carnegie

Have you ever had the experience, the rush, the exhilaration that comes when someone completely rewires your brain. Have you ever felt that buzz echo in your head from a moment of sheer awareness? A quiet whisper that transfigures your whole life from that moment on?

I have.

These past two weeks.

I worry that I’m doing something rash by talking to you. I should be more secretive about something like this. I’m fighting that urge, but I suspect exhaustion and a caffeine high are having a say in the final decision. I’m willing to persevere.

I have spoken before about the  respect that I have for James and Gareth. Their easy going, friendly and welcoming nature enraptured me and captured my friendship, a prize I give away haltingly and to few victors. They captured it with such excellence that you might suspect they exercised some magical hold over me. Certainly it happened faster than it has ever happened.

Two weeks ago Gareth initiated me, partially, in the rites of his magic. I don’t pretend to understand what he does, or why. I just understand a small layer of ‘how’. And that small kernel of truth has overwhelmed me. 

It turns out that what Houdini does, what this mage of friendship does possess, is an intimate understanding of human psychology and the human condition. An understanding that is deeply intuitive, emotional and personal.

He has a character that accepts people as they are, that offers them unconditional support and voices strong belief in what they are, can be and aspire to be. A strength of character that accepts people as emotional beings, and responds to them at that level. That finds the human tragedy and the human joy in human beings, and brings it to the fore.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, a tough realization, when you first perceive that you don’t connect with people at that level. That you don’t even see people at that level. That you don’t even recognize that level exists.

I’ve always been the kind of person who lives in their own head. And because of that I’ve always related to people at that level. I’ve always dealt in the world of ideas, thoughts, concepts or other abstracts. I have dealt with people at the level of their intellect and had rewarding friendships with people within that realm

But that is a flawed world. A partially complete world. A world without raw emotion. A world that ignores the magnificence of the human soul.

It came with some stunning realizations.

While people have these needs for acceptance, understanding and reassurance, I don’t have it in me to give it. I won’t give them that acceptance. I won’t give them that understanding and I won’t tell them the things they need to hear to get through it. At the time I said that this bothered me less than it probably should. 

Now? It’s had a chance to settle in, and it bothers me.

Bothers me a lot.  

A thought like that, actually its not a thought, its not a feeling either. I guess a realization is as close as I can get to evoking it. You can’t shake that once it takes root. It turns your mind, it grasps your tongue. It reconstructs your whole way of seeing and relating to people. It literally turns the images you see before you eyes. It alters the lines and the likenesses.

The world is redrawn, and it makes a little more sense. Not logical sense, not rational sense not perfect sense. But a sense that pervades and explains at a level of explanation that was before simply missing before from your understanding.

It’s a change that I’m still adapting to.

I still have a long long way to go.

Lister: Sometimes, I think it´s cruel giving machines a personality. My mate Petersen once bought a pair of shoes with Artificial Intelligence. ´Smart Shoes´ they were called. It was a neat idea. No matter how blind drunk you were, they could always get you home. But he got rattled one night in Oslo and woke up the next morning in Burma. You see, his shoes got bored going from his local to his flat. They wanted to see the world, you know. He had a hell of a job getting rid of them. No matter who he sold them to, they´d show up again the next day. He tried to shut them out, but they just kicked the door down.
Rimmer: Is this true?
Lister: Yeah. The last thing I heard, they sort of… robbed a car and
drove it into a canal. They couldn´t steer, you see.
Rimmer: Really?
Lister: Yeah. Petersen was really, really blown away about it. He went to see a priest. The priest told him… he said it was alright and all that, when shoes are happy that they´d get into heaven. You see, it turns out shoes have ´soles´.
Rimmer: Ah, what a sad story. Wait a minute.
[Thinks for a minute]
Rimmer: How did they open the car door?

________________________________________________________________________________________

[about art college]
Lister: They had lectures like first thing in the afternoon. We´re
talking half past twelve every day. Who´s together by then? You
can still taste the toothpaste

________________________________________________________________________________________

 

[On the two fighters tracking Red Dwarf]
Holly 1: They´re from Earth.
Lister: That´s 3 million years away.
Holly 1: They´re from the Norweb Federation.
Lister: What´s that?
Holly 1: The North Western Electricity Board. They want you, Dave.
Lister: Me? Why? What for?
Holly 1: For your crimes against humanity.
Lister: You what?
Holly 1: It seems when you left Earth, 3 million years ago, you left 2 half-eaten German sausages on a plate in your kitchen. Do you know what happens to sausages left unattended for 3 million years?
Lister: Yeah, they go mouldy.
Holly 1: Your sausages, Dave, now cover seven-eights of the Earth´s surface. Also, you left £17.50 in your bank account. Thanks to compound interest, you now own 98% of all the world´s wealth. And because you´ve hoarded it for 3 million years, nobody´s got any money except for you and Norweb.
Lister: Why Norweb?
Holly 1: You left a light on in the bathroom. I´ve got a final demand
here for £180 billion.
Lister: £180 billion? You´re kidding?
Holly 1: (Wearing a silly face mask) April fool.

________________________________________________________________________________________

 

Okay Enough from me. Read many more here.