Friday, August 25, 2006

Paragraph Twelve

Everyone is equal before the law. No one shall be discriminated against on the basis of nationality, race, colour, sex, language, origin, religion, political or other opinion, property or social status, or on other grounds.

The incitement of national, racial, religious or political hatred, violence or discrimination shall, by law, be prohibited and punishable. The incitement of hatred, violence or discrimination between social strata shall, by law, also be prohibited and punishable.

The Constitution of the Republic of Estonia

The reason I talk about America so much is because it's fascinating. It's all around us - in culture, commerce, politics... It's put a lot of effort in positioning itself as a beacon, a frontrunner and the pinnacle of Western civilization.

Then you look more closely, and lo: something's wrotten in this fine country. I'm reading Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, and I see that it's been there for a while. But I wasn't aware of it growing up. All through the Nineties, America had a massively positive image around these parts. USAID, the Clinton government's support for Estonian independence and integration into the First World (OK, they could've been a bit faster to recognize us, but we'll let it slide) - it was easy to become enamoured with the faraway land of possibility. So what if their movies were silly.

I spent a month in South California in 2003; but by that time I was already heavily critical of America. So many things about it seemed infuriatingly, self-evidently backwards - not just different from the way they were at home, but wrong. I've never put much faith in the political leaders of my country, even the ones involved in the restoration of independence - but at least they were doing things right in a general way! But what I knew of America, of how it works on a real-life level, was disturbing and occasionally disgusting. The American dream that was so dear to me, had shattered.

More and more I found myself thinking, "What have you bastards done to my America?"

The reason this happened was that great American invention (by a British scientist in a Swiss research facility) - the World Wide Web. By the late 90s I had a Celeron 300 and a dialup account, and most people I met were Americans.

Because the audience of the Internet was (and remains, in vital terms) predominantly American, so was the content. But content is ubiquitous. Suddenly I, and thousands - then millions - of people like me had access to something which was previously Proprietary and Confidential. By natural means information and opinion had previously been segregated, bound to the western hemisphere. Limited to viewers and participants who took its peculiarities for granted.

But I didn't. The more I absorbed the real America, the more I was astonished, then outraged. This is the City on the Hill? What the fuck?

The Internet had exposed foreign markets to that which the American promotional machine did not want getting out - the American mindset. A mindset represented in - and now, heavily affected by - the Constitution, the prime law of the realm. Here in Estonia we've got a rather shiny new one, from 1992, and we like to show it off. It was written by a bunch of folks who had just liberated themselves from decades of occupation by a foreign agressors (and centuries by various others, before a short stab at independence in the 1920s-1940s). They had to make it work as the basis for the functioning of the entire country.

And the Americans are also quite proud of their Constitution. Oldest democracy in the world and all that, the Bill of Rights, liberty and justice for all. I'd skimmed it, and it seemed a trifle quaint, but essentially passable.

Just recently I had one more encounter (not my first) with that curious artefact of American thinking - the dichotomy between the people and the government. Even though in America elections can go down to the level of dog catcher, the government - and particularly the federal government - is seen as a destructive, evil monster, barely tolerated and certainly distrusted.

Now, this is a strange notion to an Estonian. In 15 years of independence, we've never - not once! - had a government last from one set of elections to another. Kicking the PM out of office is a routine affair, and the President doesn't actually meddle in any business of running the country. Hell, our Constitution starts out by stating, right there in Article 1, that the supreme power in the country belongs to its people. It's an idea that seems fundamentally, indisputably right - the only way it ought to be. Yet the Bill of Rights only has it in the 10th Amendment, which says that any power that the federal and state governments don't fancy for themselves gets handed down to the people.

Oh, fine - it's just political pretty talk, and it's the spirit of the Constitution that counts, not the letter. The Constitution is the ultimate expression of the will of the people, right? They've got freedom of speech and the press, religion, trial by jury, even that ridiculous weapons thing - but alright, freedom and all that.

The encounter I mentioned was a reaction to a newspaper article about a man wearing a T-shirt with Arabic writing on it, being kicked off an airplane. This, I said, was preposterous! Another example of the Bush administration and its lackeys spitting on essential civil liberties! The Constitution protects the man's right to self-expression!

The answer, from people who can in no way be considered Bush fans: "Um, no. The Constitution is just for what the government does. Private businesses can refuse service to anyone, for any reason."


OK, leave out the fact that airlines as providers of an essential public service have to play by slightly different rules from your local pub. The Constitution is just for the government?

Silly undereducated American, I thought. And went on Google to check the text of the Bill of Rights and find the right quote.

Except it wasn't there. The 1st Amendment says that Congress can't make a law that legalizes discrimination - but it doesn't mean discrimination is illegal! Hell, I understood why the text didn't mention equality on the basis of skin colour. But actually, if you read the text, the Constitution does not prohibit discrimination!

The main body of the US Constitution deals with checks & balances. They didn't bother thinking of the people until they were done with it, and had to amend it. Even then, there is no fundamental national law equivalent to the quote at the beginning of this article - something that you could not imagine a modern, democratic, free country and society without.

A nation's Constitution is a reflection of its mentality. It's quite obvious that the American mentality could use a major overhaul. Perhaps they should start with a new Consitution, one that lives up to all the hype.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Independence Day

On August 20th, 1991, Estonia declared independence from the Soviet Union.

The Baltic Way was a live chain of people across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, two years earlier. It is a spectacularly inspirational sight, proving that great things can still be accomplished, in our time, without violence.

The ruins of the evil empire, traversed by the people who decided they were not going to stand for it any more.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Joel wants you... want to do the dishes.

It's a reference to the trailer for a movie with Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaugh, and it has been receiving its fair share of ridicule and incredulity on forums netwide. Joel, on the other hand, is an owner of a software development company, and something important in the IT blog community. And today's article recycles one of Joel's old points, that is: your employees should want to do a good job.

Now, part of Joel's point I agree with. It's ridiculous to use some sort of metrics to determine performance, because yes, people will either learn to cheat the system, or resent it and leave. Hell, I'm a technical writer, and mine is one of the hardest jobs in IT to measure (cf. old Dilbert comic about Tina the Tech Writer being told her performance review is based on lines of text: "Welcome to Tina's hourly newsletter, where I compare our products to various types of wood...").

However, no less ridiculous is the expectation that your employees will do a good job because they want to do a good job. This is one of those fundamental differences between Americans and Europeans that cannot be breached; it is things like this that make every Brit with enough experience to form an opinion to whole-heartedly declare that they'd be perfectly happy living in Estonia but would never for the life of them move to the States. And damn the language barrier.

The puritan roots of American mentality have grown into a work ethic where labour is its own reward. Joel may be a good employer by US standards - health insurance, benefits, good working conditions, good wages - but he still seems to think in the back of his mind that employment comes down to giving somebody enough money so that they don't get distracted by the vagaries of life from that which forms the essense of their existence: programming.

I'm sorry, but no. You are not defined by your job. Your job is something that you do for eight hours every weekday so that you can spend the rest of your time doing something you like. Now, eight hours every weekday is still a lot of time, so it makes sense to pick something you're good at and don't mind doing. But not more than that.

As a freelance translator and journalist, I have had to develop a fairly strict code of ethics. An employment contract is an agreement by two sides to take certain actions which are useful for the other party. As such, I will honour my commitment and as long as I am treated professionally by the employer, I will behave professionally towards them. (Incidentally, if I am not treated professionally, I feel no obligation whatsoever towards the employer; it's a necessary attitude as translators suffer some of the worst abuse in white-collar industries.) The company I work for is entitled to my professionalism, but not to my loyalty. They don't pay me nearly enough to get my loyalty.

And if I am asked, or volunteer, to go above and beyond that which is required of me by contract, so that the company may benefit, I fully expect to be appreciated. If I've spent a week working nights to get a feature ready for the next release, you're goddamn right I want a bonus.

The one, single, undiluted reason I spend fourty hours a week at the office is so that I can receive enough money to pay my expenses and have enough left over for an extra gig of RAM, a trip to Stockholm and a few pints with my friends. Now, my professionalism allows me to feel satisfaction for doing a good job, but if I were to win the Scandinavian lottery, I'd be out of here in a heartbeat, and I would not write a manual ever again.

Just as Jennifer wants Vince to want to do the dishes, so does Joel want you to want to work hard. Uh-huh, and in that case I want Joel to want to give me a large bag of money and a purple unicorn. Or, to quote Philo Janus commenting on Ms. Aniston's line: "Well, I want you to want to swallow!"

Sunday, August 06, 2006

More on thought

The previous post was actually a reply on a forum (edited slightly). Here's the continuation:
Staying just ahead of the curve is ignoble, going off and doing something totally individual without regard to the curve. That's what modern-minded man never does.
You can't do anything without regard to the curve. You have been born and raised by the curve, and you are incapable of doing or thinking something which is not influenced by it. Progress is one-dimensional; you can do something that the curve isn't doing, but you can't get out of the curve's path because your initial thrust vector originates in the curve.

If you come up with something so beyond the general intellect of human society that it is never embraced, you are the only one who will ever know. The noble deed and outstanding thought are only such by recognition, and therefore they are not only of humanity, but of society.

Beyond the curve is the domain of the most fearsome beast ever encountered - Schroedinger's cat.
So, Flasher, do you think the realization of the problems posed by the Euthyphro dilemma is or is not "beyond the general intellect of human society"?

If it is, why is it then so famous? If not, then why are most people still using religion as the basis of their morality?
Well, the first point is that it's beyond the scope of philosophy. The Greek philosophers were essentially atheists, as ontology presumes there is a natural logic which is perceivable by the human mind - and that is incompatable with deity. ;) Classic philosophical works, most famously Socrates (as told by Plato, let's not forget) used gods as a rhetoric device.

However philosophy does definitely involve morals, so it's worth considering.

The answer lies in whether you believe in God and God's omnipotence, that is, do you believe that God has knowledge and wisdom beyond our understanding. If so, then "that which is moral - is moral because it is commanded by God". If, as Alexander Pope said, "wisdom infinite must form the best" - that is, if God has knowledge of things that apply to our world but are based in something greater, then we must defer judgement to a higher authority.

But if there is no supernatural being, and God is simply a product of human consciousness and reasoning - as real and practical in everyday terms as democracy or freedom - then morality is prime, and is defined by the complex organism of human society self-regulating. God is simply a mechanism to avoid having to explain macrosociology to every single person on Earth, and hope that they understand why moral behaviour serves the society in general, and through that, them personally.

Religion is like the military: a system created by geniuses for the benefit of idiots. Just as an army can exhibit inspired tactical and strategic manouvers without every single soldier having an IQ of 150 and being explained the general plan, so religion too achieves morality in society without justifying the ways of God to man.

Of course, as I said before with progress the average human becomes capable of perceiving more, and so any sufficiently developed civilization ends up with rampant atheism. When individuals behave in the best interests of society through personal conviction, not the threat of hellfire, religion becomes redundant.
So, Flasher, do you think the realization of the problems posed by the Euthyphro dilemma is or is not "beyond the general intellect of human society"?
It is well within the capacity, and it has been realized, that is, the answer to the question is obvious: since morality shifts not only with space and between different religions, but over time within one religion - the morals of Christianity today are different from the 1600s, those are different from the 1200s, and those are different from early Christianity - then there is no single set of absolute rules for morality. Moral is that which makes society function in an optimal way, and God prescribes whatever is right for the time.

If morality was decided by God, or otherwise perceived in its entirety by God and passed down to humanity in a simplified Penguin reader form, then it would be for our purposes absolute and universal, with no wiggle room.

The Greeks had a sense of history but not as good an experience of history as we do today. Diachronically the solution to the dilemma is simple: because morality changes over time, it is human and not divine in origin, as God is by definition eternal and unchanging, while humanity is by definition fleeting and ever altering. Even if you believe in God as a sentient being, you must accept that no code of morals available to us today is divine in origin. If you believe in God as a behavioural phenomenon (like I do), it's even simpler than that.

The argument is that of persuasion. The answer depends on whether you believe in God as a sentient being of transcendent wisdom. If you do, it's one, if you don't, it's the other. Note that if you ask a person on the street: "Is doing as God says right because God says so, or does God say it because it's right?" - the person will give it a bit of thought and come up with a more or less well-argued answer. Very few people will say sincerely, "I don't know and I don't know how to find out".

The real question though, the key question of meta-ontological philosophy, is this: Is the very concept of knowledge which is beyond human capacity to perceive, fundamentally human in nature?

Saturday, August 05, 2006

On thought

"The modern-minded man, although he believes profoundly in the wisdom of his period, must be presumed to be very modest about his personal powers. His highest hope is to think first what is about to be thought, to say what is about to be said, and to feel what is about to be felt; he has no wish to think better thoughts than his neighbors, to say things showing more insight, or to have emotions which are not those of some fashionable group, but only to be slightly ahead of others in point of time. Quite deliberately he suppresses what is individual in himself for the sake of the admiration of the herd."

-- Bertrand Russell, "On Being Modern-Minded," Unpopular Essays
Correct perception, incorrect analysis. It is not possible for a human being to have a thought which is outside the capacity of humans to have; and if there is an absolute, universal, ontological truth - it must be one that can occur to anyone. Arcane, secret knowledge does not scale.

In this case, truth = onto. The fundamental logical equation upon which all nature and humanity is based. The original goal of all philosophy. From the Greek "to on", meaning "that which is". Ontology is the search for the basis of existence, with a view to explain and understand it and not stumble about in the dark. The meaning of life essentially, only not confined to life.

Any thought that an exceptional thinker may have is but one that somebody else would have come upon later (and often enough, somebody has come upon before, but didn't have as good PR). All known philosophy which is in an imperfect sense true, that is, applicable to the perceived world in a useful way, has been created through a titanic effort by the outstanding thinkers of old. But to a modern man who had the benefit of modern schooling, it is self-evident. Both philosophers and students of philosophy like to talk in very complicated phrases - partly for snobbish exclusionism, partly because between two people proficient in the vernacular it really is a more efficient way of sharing ideas. Yet, once you get past all the pretty turn of phrase, the author's point can be summed up in a simple sentence.

Now, humanity's average capability for intelligent thought is not likely to increase very dramatically over time, at least not in the evolutionary blink of an eye we've had to develop philosophy (less than five thousand years); a historical genius, presented with the knowledge base of 2006 AD, would be able to do wonderful things with it.

The point being: any exceptional thought that a genius philosopher may have is inevitably going to be bloody obvious to people living some time after him. Thus it is moronic to suggest that staying ahead of the curve is ignoble. The tidal wave will assimilate you whatever you do. It's just a matter of the interval. Very smart people are far ahead of the surf, marginally above average ones are marginally ahead of it. (And the really smart ones don't get ahead of the surf at all - they point the wave in the right direction.)

Exceptional thought is always self-evident thought expressed before it became self-evident.

Friday, August 04, 2006

The comparative value of human life

There's a bit of dialogue in an old episode of West Wing that asks why the life of a resident of some faraway, Third World country is less valuable than the life of an American. The answer to that is, "I don't know, but it is."

Three and a half weeks of war in Lebanon so far, with reports of around 500 people killed north of the border. The Israeli death toll is at 75, over half of them soldiers. I don't think it will surprise anyone that in the Middle East, the life of a Jew is worth a lot more than the life of an Arab.

But there is another perspective on the global outrage concerning the civilian casualties in Lebanon that I have not seen considered anywhere. That being: since the US invasion in Iraq, no less than fourty thousand civilians have been killed. Now, admittedly, the vast majority of that has been at the hands of other Iraqis - but you can't argue that the bombings would not be happening had it not been for the invasion. I will not dispute that Saddam deserved to be put in jail, but at the same time there isn't really any reasonable way for the US government to avoid responsibility for the civil war in Iraq.

Where is the outrage?

Another geographical name that has not been heard in a while is Darfur. You may recall it - a place in Sudan, essentially an enormous refugee camp. As the result of a civil war, massive numbers of people were murdered. Now, this can't be pinned on the Americans, but the shear figures dwarf the Iraq body count. Seventy thousand by the most conservative estimate, as much as four hundred thousand by people who sound like they might know what they're talking about.

Where is the outrage?

Partially there's the PR machine to consider, but Iraq has been on the news for years. Footage for Darfur ran on MTV. Bono shed tears over it.

Fourty thousand Iraqis. Hundreds of thousands Africans. And the world shrugs it off. Five hundred Lebanese - and the world trembles with righteous indignation.

Here's another TV quote, this time from Yes Minister:

"The Letters JB in capitals are one of the highest Commonwealth honours. They stand for Jailed by the British. The order includes Gandhi, Nkrumah, Makarios, Ben Gurion, Kenyatta, Nheru, Mugabe and many other world leaders."

In much the same way, there is a superior distinction today in the eyes of Europe and a lot of America. The proudly displayed letters KJ: Killed by the Jews. There isn't really anything about the Lebanese that would endear them to the First World.

It's just that the value of a human life increases significantly if taken by an Israeli attack.


And a different, though related, point. I'm beginning to be terribly annoyed by people weeping publicly for the poor dead children of Lebanon, talking about how their humanity does not allow them to condone civilian deaths under any auspices whatsoever. I'm sorry, but this is pompous bullshit. If any of these self-righteous pricks gave a damn about the plight of the disadvantaged in faraway countries, they wouldn't be flaming me on the Internet - they'd be de-worming orphans in Somalia. Me, I at least admit to myself and anyone else that I've never met these people, their deaths do not affect me in any way whatsoever, so while intellectually it's unfortunate that they've been killed, at the end of the day I don't really care. But giving twenty bucks a year to the Red Cross does not give you the moral high ground and the right to assume the pose of Defender of the Meek.


One of my more astute purchases has been that of an Israeli Air Force T-shirt at the Hyatt Regency gift shop - before the start of the war. Have been wearing it for three days and haven't had my ass kicked yet, but according to Mutton, in London I'd be hospitalized within hours.


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