"Those who call for censorship in the name of the oppressed ought to recognize it is never the oppressed who determine the bounds of censorship."

- Aryeh Neier

Know Thyself

According to Google's demographic algorithm, I'm an 18-24 year old male, into martial arts, shopping...and painting.

So I guess I'm a hipster, but only on the inside.

To find out who you aren't, click here, and see which ads google would put on your blog.

"One thing about charlatans is that they have a fine-tuned sense of who might be hurting their bottom line."

- PZ Myers

"England isn’t a country, it’s an American aircraft carrier."

- Gore Vidal

Material, Girl

In the second slice of our philosophy sandwich, a case where the answers are often more baffling than the questions.

What's the relationship between the ideas in your head, and reality out there? What's the real world actually like, and how's it different from your thoughts, feelings, and impressions about it?

People have come up with hundreds of answers, but they generally fall into two broad camps, known as Materialism and Idealism. Both these words have meanings in ordinary language, but their philosophical meanings are quite different.

Materialism is the idea that reality is material, concrete, physical. It's external to and independent of anyone's perceptions of or beliefs about it - it doesn't care what you think, and would be just the same if you had no thoughts.

In materialism, thoughts are the processing of your corporeal brain, and anything we might call spiritual has a bodily foundation. Ghosts, god and precognition probably don't exist, but if they do, they're ultimately physical and scientifically investigatable.

This last leads into the notion that reality is also consistent, precisely defined, and exact - the opposite qualities to those we tend to find in ideas, which are often inconsistent, vague and shifting.

Idealism is the converse - the notion that reality is really mental, spiritual, or a matter of personal will.

Thus the idealisms that the universe is an idea in the mind of god, that geometric shapes are more real - because they're more perfect - than the imperfect shapes of mundane objects, or even that the physical world is an illusion, generated by my mind.

So surely everyone's a materialist now? Only lunatics believe idealism in the modern world, yes? Well...

Idealism is common in the new age movement, with self-help books written on how you can change your personal circumstances by visualising hard enough. You'll also hear sports commentators telling us that an athlete didn't win a race because 'they didn't want it enough'. Faith healers point to 'the placebo effect' to support their arguments about 'mind over matter'.

If you view history as a journey towards some goal, you're an idealist. If you think there's an essential, true version of your personality hidden underneath the layers of culture and conditioning, that's idealistic.

So what about the vagueness of thoughts? If thoughts are hazy and confused, wouldn't idealism mean that the world outside of thoughts is the same way? If your willpower determines your life, and your willpower is conflicted, won't that give you a life full of irreconcilable tensions?

Some have gone down just that road, citing quantum physics and chaos theory as evidence that the material world is as uncertain and blurry as human thoughts.

The confusing thing is that, once the terms have been explained, almost everyone calls themselves a philosophical materialist - redefining the term as needed to fit their idealisms. It's pretty rare to find someone who's consistently on one side or the other.

But is it possible to reconcile the two? To bring them into harmony, or show that the incompatibility is an illusion? Some great minds have tried.

In the late 1700s, Georg Hegel tried to reconcile his old religious idealism with the new scientific materialism - by folding the latter into the former. His system of a world spirit guiding the universe towards self-awareness, and humanity toward political perfection, made scientific progress a pawn of a divine plan. Incidentally, he also wrote his own philosophy into this plan - as the final stage.

Hegel was therefore not a reconciler at all but an idealist. However, his followers continued his work - most of them trying to reinterpret his system to make it materialist. In the case of Marx, that meant recasting Hegel's warring abstract cosmic forces as the conflicting political interests of earthly economic classes. And especially in the case of his sidekick Engels, projecting these conflicts into chemical reactions and gas nebulas.

In 1914, Lenin immersed himself in Hegel's writings. The result was a set of notes and essays which he kept secret from even his closest comrades. He set out his 'radical materialism', which counterposed 'vulgar materialism' with 'clerical obscurantism', ie. idealism. He contended that each was partially true but 'one sided', and the truth was a unity of both.

For Lenin, things and categories are pale reflections of each other, and in the reality behind them, the difference disappears. And experience is not matter stimulating the sense organs, but the mind's direct contact with matter.

Whatever else he was then, as a philosopher Lenin was a throwback to 18th century mysticism. His ultra-materialism, supposedly subsuming materialism and idealism...was an idealism.

And so I tentatively suggest that whenever anyone tries to reconcile or combine idealistic and materialistic views, the result is disguised idealism.

Happy Accident

I missed the last philosophical phriday - I was actually caught up in a philosophical email discussion. So to make up, this week it's a double bill. In this the first part, an example of what's known as 'ordinary language philosophy'.

Is it possible to keep a promise by mistake?

When I first heard this one, I thought the answer was obviously yes. I mean, here's a scenario:

I promise to be in London on Tuesday, but have no intention of keeping the promise because I've already decided to be in Brighton on Tuesday. So on Tuesday I catch the train to Brighton...but it's the wrong train and I end up in London.

I promised to be in London, I made a mistake, and the result was I went to London, keeping the promise.

But it's not quite as simple as that. Because surely keeping a promise doesn't just involve getting the promised result, but also doing everything needed to get that result, and doing it with the intention of doing so.

There's plenty of verbs which refer to internal states - want, know, hope, calculate, remember etc. - but not to the visible expression of these states. And there's plenty of verbs which say nothing about what's going on 'inside' - robots can jump, roll and even speak without consciousness.

Can a robot be obnoxious? It could certainly be programmed to act like a jerk, but I don't think we'd describe it as being one. But the same robot programmed to play chess can win and lose games - it's not just pretending.

"Keep" though, in the sense of 'keep a promise', looks like it concerns both states and actions. And the same goes for making and breaking promises. Can you make a promise to someone by accident? You can certainly say something which they misinterpret as a promise, but that's a failure of communication, not an accidental intention. If you believe you've kept a promise to someone, but they maintain you've broken it, there may be disagreement about exactly what constitutes keeping and breaking, but they're not saying you did anything without meaning to.

In one sense, a bad egg can poison you, in that it can be the source of an infection. In another sense, the loved one who cooked you the bad egg in good faith has poisoned you, though they didn't mean to. But to be fully justified in accusing someone of poisoning you, they'd have to have correctly believed the egg was bad, and served it to you not just intending you to be ill as a result, but believing, perhaps falsely, that your lymphatic system couldn't just shrug it off.

The Russian noblemen who put poison in Rasputin's wine didn't succeed in poisoning him (killing him), even though they succeeded in...poisoning him (giving him poison).

Sometimes we use the same word for an action which is deliberate and one which isn't. It's possible to insult someone by mistake, and it's also possible to do it deliberately. Same word, different action.

It's possible to arrive on time by mistake, having intended to be late, but that's not the same as being punctual. It's possible to make someone feel complimented, when you intended to be sarcastic, but that's not the same as flattering them.

And it's possible to catch a train to the promised city having intended to go to a different one, but that's not the same as keeping a promise by mistake.

"Whoever said laughter is the best medicine never had gonorrhea."

- Kat Likkel and John Hoberg.

"If there is no stuggle inside you, it’s difficult to be an artist."

- Tariq Ali

"If you look at the thing too directly - the oppressive social dimension - you don’t see it. You can see it in an oblique way only if it remains in the background."

- Slavoj Zizek

On Hold

I was supposed to leave today.

That is, leave home, leave the UK, and leave state benefits for a job teaching arabs who want to learn American for business...but would rather learn it from a Britisher. Because Brits are seen as more refined than Yanks. The persistence of this small bit of student snobbery is largely what sustains the British ESL business.

However, there's been a small bureaucratic delay - of about four weeks. It seems the paperwork involved in setting up a business can't be processed at the same time as the paperwork for the visas of the employees of that business.

There's probably a reason for this rule which sound perfectly good if you don't think about it. But whatever the reason, I'm stuck here for another month - which on the one hand means I can learn a bit more Arabic and listen to a few more podcasts, and on the other...I can't do much more.

That's the thing about free time. You only have enough energy to fill a certain amount of it.

All the packing is planned, the least uncomfortable work clothes are pressed, I've got six months worth of diabetes pills, and a terabyte of movies, music and ebooks ready to go. But my guitar won't quite fit into my travelcase - typical.

"Skepticism is not about disbelief, but about disbelief until sufficient evidence proves otherwise."

- Chuck Sonnenberg

"If the hole is big enough, pegs of any shape will fit through."

- Harriet Hall

"If we had to sum up the political view of our participants in a single sentence...we couldn’t. That’s sort of the point."

- Jon Stewart

"Most issues rest on so many wrong premises and carry so many contradictions that instead of the question: 'Who is right?' one is constantly and tacitly confronted with the question: Which gang do you support?"

- Ayn Rand

"Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception."

- George Orwell

"I am asked ‘What do you think of him?’ and my answer is ‘He doesn’t make me think.’"

- Christopher Hitchens

"Beginners do not know what they do not know."

- Michael Heath

Killer Zodiac

My starsign prediction, according to yahoo:

At the risk of being a bully, you've got to be assertive. A childhood dream is within your grasp, but you won't reach it unless you voice some demands. People will be shocked by your aggressive behaviour, but they don't have anything at stake. You, on the other hand, have the potential to get an incredible job, go on an overseas trip, or launch a successful business. Do you really want to jeopardise such an opportunity for the sake of being polite?

Oh crap.

The Captain's Table

For my friends over at Infomanic: My riotous 40th birthday celebrations, with family.

The Haggis

The Vegetables

The Gravy

The Strawberry Cheesecake

The, er, "Glass" of Wine

The First Helping

The Distressingly Modest Second Helping

The Bowl of Something Mysterious That'd Been Left on the Table

The First Helping of Cheesecake

Um. Actually I'm too full of Haggis to have the cheesecake just yet. And so are my parents. We're having a little lie down for half an hour before attempting to tackle the Pudding.

Update when we have the strength.

Update: A Small Portion of Cheesecake

Foreword, Foreward, Forty

Some people say life begins at forty.

But these people are usually over sixty and have no life. If you turn a stupid idea on its head - like turning youth-worship into age-worship - you just get another stupid idea. Like replacing racism with political correctness, or universal brotherhood with universal misanthropy.

At age 10 I wanted to be an actor. At 15, a pop star. At 20, a philosopher. At 25 I just wanted to find a relationship that wasn't messed up. At 30, I wanted to be an exposer of frauds everywhere - so I suppose I wanted to be James Randi.

At 35...I knew what I didn't want to be any longer - the guy who fixes everyone else's computers. I also didn't want to be 'the out gay one' or the one who feels obliged to fit in. Somehow this translated into training as a teacher - and becoming an unemployed teacher instead of an unemployed technician.

Now, turning 40, I'm supposed to look back and ponder, so I can look forward and plan. I'm also supposed to have one last fling, a favourite pair of slippers, a life partner, a life insurance policy and no new thoughts ever again.

Well, I'll try for the planning bit:

  • What to do: All sorts of stuff. Music, reading, writing, a bit of travel, trying out whatever seems interesting. Also, lose some weight and be less broke.

  • What not to do: What everyone else my age is doing. Settling down, getting married, getting a mortgage with a patio and french windows. Believing the newspapers and pretending to understand politics. Also, prevaricate.

  • What to be: I'll let you know when I've worked this one out.

  • What not to be: Bored, regretful, fearful.

So there you have it. I know pretty well what I don't want to do with my life. If I have any wisdom at all, that's it.

Suite Incense

One day I found a videotape.

We postgrad students had a 'common room', ie. a cluttered, smoke infused room for general storage of whatever things didn't have storage space of their own...plus some chairs.

Under one heap of stuff, I found an unmarked VHS video cassette. And on an impulse decided, "Whatever's recorded on this tape, I'll re-edit into...something."

The tape contained four short, silent films, made by a previous student. They were dance-based, used christian imagery, and had not so much a gay subtext as a gay...text.

I quickly put together four bits of simple music - including one of my first attempts at rapping, called 'Heretic' - and worked out some permutative algoithms to edit the video to.

The result was "The Incense of the World", a pun on "The Sense of the World" - an impenetrable postmodern art criticism book by Jean-Luc Nancy, that we were all supposed to pretend to have read. That and, er, religeous incense.

Now over a decade later, having a masters degree in art history hasn't notably improved my life. But the incidental byways in the process of getting the qualification...they're worth having.

"If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers."

- Thomas Pychon

Suite FA

This was my attempt at a video self-portrait.

So it's a little slow, occasionally jerky, and just a bit pretentious.

"The more beautiful and pure a thing is, the more satisfying it is to corrupt it."

- Internet Rule #43

"Any sound that the human ear can hear can be produced by a computer."

- Max Matthews

Suite's from Strangers

This editing experiment I did at home - and made the music for it too.

Back in 2000, computers were just powerful enough to record fullscreen video in real time, and the software was just powerful enough to manipulate the result in ways that immediately became cheesy cliches.

So, using my usual technique of recording whatever was on the screen at the time and then seeing what I could do with it, this was all done in one afternoon, a burst of enthusiasm, and possibly a fit of pique.

"There’s nothing like the lonely horror of realising you’ve made a really massive cock-up."

- Charlie Brooker


I did write a long, complicated post for this, the second Philosophical Phriday, but it threatened to turn into a book. So here's a nice simple one instead.

If a tree falls in a forest, and no one hears it, does it make a sound? We've all heard the question, and it's not difficult to see that it relies on an ambiguous use of the word "sound".

If sound is defined as longitudinal waves of compression and rarefaction in a medium - specifically, such waves that are capable of creating sympathetic vibrations in the eardrum, then the answer is yes. The tree makes a sound, but no one hears it.

If sound is defined experientally as what a person hears when their brain interprets impulses from their cochleas, fed to it by the eardrum, moving in sympathetic vibration to waves which hit it...then the answer is no. There was no sound because there was no experience of sound.

If you like, you can locate the boundary between "physical signal" and "personal experience" as taking place in various stages - the movement of air inside the ear, the movement of the eardrum, the transmission of this to the cochlea, the reception by the cochlea, the bandwidth splitting that it performs, the reception of "raw" signal by the brain...or the moment where your conscious minds says "Aha! A sound!".

I think where you draw the line (or lines) is largely a matter of taste. The important thing is that the word "sound" has (at least) two senses either side of the line, and conflating them leads to confusion.

In fact, as Wittgenstein was fond of saying, most philosophical questions stem from this kind of carelessness with language.

This one also threatened to turn into a book, so I've kept what was essentially the preamble, to follow up on the trailing threads in later posts.

"The irrational belongs to all of us."

- Johnathan Meades

Suite Love

That film studies course. Which was actually called "Historical and Theoretical Studies", a name only exceeded in vagueness by the degree course it led into, "Visual Culture".

Anyway, it involved watching:

  • Jean-Luc Picard Goddard's "Weekend" - or rather, the famous ten minute long tracking shot of a traffic jam.

  • Fran├žois Truffaut's "Jules et Jim" - a bromance movie from before the word existed. Two men who are obviously in one kind of love or another, channeling it through a woman.

  • Citizen Kane. Which I think is more interesting to watch as a composition exercise than a story.

I of course spent most of my time messing around with the antiquated video editing facilities, and here's the second experiment. The music is the "Three Fingers" version of The Art of Noise's famous "Moments in Love", and the visuals are...a lot of home taped documentaries, grabbed at random the night before.

No Goddard, Truffaut or Welles, though.

"History does not repeat itself. Historians repeat each other."

- Arthur Balfour

Suite Blitz

Would you like to see my home videos?

Around the year 2000, I was on a Film Studies course. Aside from watching (and re-watching, and reading about, and reading more about, and trying to write about) a series of classic movies...there were some editing suites.

The kind that worked by copying sections of one VHS tape onto another - obsolete and clunky even at the time, I spent far too long experimenting on them with whatever source material came to hand.

So here's the first of my experiments to survive. The soundtrack is an untitled track from the end of Yello's "One Second" album, and the video is recut from a film called "Swoon", about Leopold and Loeb.

If you don't remember the case, they were gay jewish intellectuals (and sort-of lovers) who tried to prove their superiority by committing the perfect crime - kidnapping a young boy, killing him and purposely leaving clues...for the police to miss.

The irony is, the duo left plenty of non-deliberate clues, and the police caught them easily. The case has inspired several other films, including Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope".

So, we'll see what YouTube makes of the copyright issues, and if they yank it after a week, well, you've still got a brief snippet of film studies.

"Glory is a retrospective and sentimental adjustment of the actual. It’s like dressing an accident victim for his coffin."

- Johnathan Meades

"Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth, and every man has a right to knock him down for it."

- Samuel Johnson

"We expect more from technology and less from each other."

- Sherry Turkle

"Fiction is a branch of neurology."

- JG Ballard


Today I calculated my income tax. You're bored already, aren't you?

Eighteen months ago I became a small business - teaching English as a second language. Six months later I had four students - one ran out of money for lessons, one offered me a great job...then very suddenly left the country and cancelled his phone. Hmmm. One got depressed and decided he couldn't handle the grammar...and the forth decided she didn't need to learn English at all.

I'd asked her "Why do you want to improve your English?", and as she answered I could see her realising that all her colleagues spoke Arabic, as did all her clients and her friends. She could get through an entire month in England using English for nothing more than buying groceries.

In retrospect, maybe I shouldn't have asked. But it's an accepted fact of teaching adults - easily half your students don't really know why they're studying at all, even though they may be learning it well.

Anyway, sole trader income tax.

Ninety minutes of fiddling around with the government website - which is to say, ten minutes guessing which of the several twelve-digit random streams they'd given me a year and a half ago was my login ID. Then another ten getting my password reset, and ten clicking indecipherably-named links until I got to the right page.

And then an hour of filling out an online questionnaire. Am I a farmer? No. Am I or my spouse or legal partnership partner registered blind? Uh, no. Do I have Class Four Exemption? Seeing as I don't know what that is, probably not.

What are my costs? Well, ignoring the occasional biro and notepaper - which the student usually has lying around anyway - erm, nothing at all. Not office rental, no company car, not even a lavish restaurant meal with an 'agent' which can be put on expenses.

And income? When I set up the business, I was emphatically told I must keep all receipts from all transactions. And that's why I've had twelve receipts for short courses and individual lessons sitting safe in a ringbinder for a year.

Together coming to...a bit less than GBP400.

So I can now reveal exactly how much tax I have to pay. In round figures. The roundest figures which exist, in fact. The Arabic word is 'Sifr', from which we get the English words 'Cypher' and 'Zero'.

There's just one other thing. I can't find the form for closing down my business. It seems that, having died in the world of business, I don't know how to commit business suicide.

"What we desire is not a happy ending, so much as closure."

- Roger Ebert

Bull by the Horns

You might find it difficult to believe, but this blog started, seven years ago, as a place to put essays on philosophy.

After four rather laboured posts, I thought "I'm not actually any good at this, but I do have a real life - so I'll write about that instead", deleted the essays and started again.

I'd also discovered the philosophical aspect of marxism, which seemed to neatly cut through all the imponderables and knotty questions I spent my teens and twenties bashing my head against.

Now though, I've belatedly realised that:
(1) the philosophy is 19th century hermetic mysticism.
(2) It's rubbish.
(2) It's actually nothing to do with the political project of marxism, and
(3) However insightful the project's other theories may be, it's moribund.

So, I'm picking up some of my old books again, and I'm setting myself the task of writing one informal philosophically inspired essay per week - perhaps on Philosophical Phridays. And we'll see where it goes.

Starting with one of my favourite topics.

"On Bullshit" is a 1986 essay by philosopher Harry Frankfurt. He treats bullshit as a verb rather than a noun. Instead of asking "What is bullshit?", he asks "What is it to bullshit someone?"

His answer is that it's to attempt to persuade, without caring whether the argument is sound, logical or even meaningful. That means it's quite possible to bullshit someone with nothing but clear, reasoned arguments based on evident truths. But it's equally possible to use half-truths, emotive language, empty cliches, appeal to authority, intimidating technical terms, insinuation...or just plain lies.

A bullshitter is someone who doesn't care about truth or the ethics of debate - if the truth is useful, they'll use it, but they'll try to win by any methods available.

The obvious examples are advertising and politics. An advertiser might truthfully claim that users of toothpaste brand X have 66% fewer cavities than the average, according to a recent study - while failing to mention the study had a grand total of three subjects, and had to be done 50 times to get the result they wanted. An election candidate might constantly mention that their competitor was once accused of adultery - as though the accusation proved guilt, and as though it somehow related to the competitor's competence.

So, is it possible to bullshit oneself? Frankfurt doesn't ask, but there seems no reason why not. Indeed, we've all watched people take a few seconds to invent rationalisations after they've realised what they're doing or saying is wrong. People are actually very squeamish about violating their ethics, so they avoid the problem by building their ethics out of rubber.

But is it bullshit to use violence or the threat of violence? What about threatening someone with financial ruin if they don't join your ponzi scheme? Or eternal damnation if they don't join your religion? That's certainly persuasion.

Indeed, what about threatening to stab someone if they don't give you their money? A mugger may be lying about their willingness to use a knife, but it's difficult to describe being robbed as being bullshitted.

What about actually being stabbed? What about torturing detainees to "persuade" them to tell what they know?

Again, Frankfurt doesn't go there, but there is a crucial implicit distinction - between being persuaded, by whatever means, to believe something, and being persuaded, by possibly identical means, to do something.

The ponzi seller and the preacher both use threats and promises to try to make you believe you should join their scheme, but you may or may not act on that belief. The interrogators don't really care what you believe - they just want you to tell them what they think they already know, and not resist whichever government is in power at the time.

To borrow terms from a different philosopher - Louis Althusser - bullshit is ideological, as opposed to repressive.

But the distinction isn't entirely clear cut, for two reasons:
(1) There'd be no point in changing someone's belief if that didn't sometimes change their behavior as a result. Frankfurt says bullshit is everywhere, but doesn't go on to say that the only reason it's everywhere, is that people who want you to do things for them are everywhere.

(2) It's emotion, not belief, that moves us. And the reason people sometimes act on their beliefs is that beliefs are intimately mixed up with feelings. The advertiser doesn't want you to believe the product is effective - they want you to desire it, for whatever reason, even if you believe it's ineffective. So much that you'll buy it. How often have you bought something which you knew wouldn't do its job as well as a competitor, but felt a kind of loyalty to?

To be bullshitted is to have your emotional buttons pushed - including buttons connected to your feelings about truth, rigour and logic. In fact, I suggest that Harry Frankfurt had it the wrong way round: The bullshitter doesn't bullshit us into believing. Rather, they bullshit us into feeling, hoping this will lead to us acting, with beliefs later catching up with both as a by-product.

"The problem of evil is not hedonism. The problem is that of envy, when preventing the other’s enjoyment becomes more important than your own enjoyment. The logic of envy has nothing to do with hedonism."

- Slavoj Zizek

"It is much easier to have sympathy for suffering than for thought."

- Oscar Wilde

"Our brains have just one scale, and we resize our experiences to fit."


"If you're not comfortable with the unknown, it's difficult to be a scientist."

- Brian Cox

"Silence means something or doesn't mean something in a particular context."

- John P Meier

"Beauty’s where you find it."

- Madonna


So, it's the new year.

I've been on the earth for around 350,000 hours, and with any luck there's about the same again to come. What am I supposed to do with it?

In seventeen days (assuming I don't get hit by a bus) I'm turning forty.

In about twenty five days (assuming bureaucracy doesn't screw up again) I'm catching a plane to take a job teaching in the arse end of nowhere.

And in six months I'm scheduled (assuming...I stick the the schedule) to decide whether I want to stay there for another six.

So I suppose I do have a plan for the next year. Become (apparently) middle-aged, be gainfully employed, try to save a lot of money while having some new experiences, and at some point catch a plane to somewhere else.

But apart from that...

  • All those intriguing stray thoughts which crop up, the one which make you think "I wonder if there's a witty or incisive blogpost in that"...before you think "Hmmm, maybe I'd offend or confuse or bore my army of casual readers, so I'll play safe and keep quiet".

    Quick film reviews, a weekly series on abstruse philosophical topics, things which were blindingly obvious but which I'd never fully appreciated before. That kind of thing - blog it.

  • Have a go at video blogging. Without ever showing my face.

    What's the worst that could happen? Or to put it another way, what could possibly go wrong?

  • Just make some fucking music already. It doesn't have to be lyrically profound, or tonally inventive, or genre breaking.

    The band who first made me want to make music - the Art of Noise, back in 1985 - described their avant-garde noodling as "high tech skiffle". And that's good enough for me.

But before all that...try getting to sleep before seven in the morning. Maybe not every night, but at least once a week.

"We shall be judged by what we do, not by how we felt while we were doing it."

- Kenneth Tynan