an obession with first principles

Control is Fear

Posted: Sunday Mar 4th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Anthropology, Philosophising | View Comments

There was an odd confluence of mental events this weekend. Yesterday I had a brief, but interesting conversation with some friends about cars, cyclists, and pedestrians (abbreviated as “peds”). And this evening I decided to relax by watching The Dark Knight. To me the Joker is one of the single greatest characters conceived and executed on film in my time. The main character in the movie is not Batman at all – its the Joker. The mental explosion occurred during the scene where the Joker is talking to Harvey Dent. This conversation results in the psychological creation of the villain Two Face in the mind of Dent. I couldn’t find a transcription of the speech, so I transcribed it:

Do I really look like a guy with a plan?

You know what I am, I am a dog chasing cars, I wouldn’t know what with it one I caught it. You know, I just do things. The mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon has plans. They’re schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I’m not a schemer. I try to show the schemers have pathetic their attempts to control things really are. So, when I say that you and your girlfriend was nothing personal, you know that I’m telling the truth.

It’s the schemers that put you where you are. You were a schemer and had plans, and uh, look where that got you.

I just did what I do best. I took your little plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. You know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even when the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that, like, a gang-banger will get shot, or a truck load of soldiers is going to get blown up, nobody panics. Because it’s all part of the plan. But when I say that one little old mayor will die then everyone loses their minds.

Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos. Its fear.

The more I follow politics, rhetoric, and watch the American culture the more I realize that fear is its true disease. And the symptom of fear is control. But I want to describe how these two events from this weekend coalesced to show me this.

There have been psychological tests to show why people in cars are less observant: it is because they are sitting in an entirely concealed box and thus removed from the world. And the more gadgets we add to cars (full suspensions, automatic transmissions, anti-lock brakes, navigation systems, automatic parking systems) the more we are removed even from the car itself. Experienced cyclists, however, are hyper-aware (as this recently posted comic points out). Taking a pothole with my full weight will hurt my ass (perhaps even the family jewels) if I’m not paying attention and get off the saddle. Peds, cars, dogs, and doors are all things that can seriously hurt me. I hear the car approaching me from the rear. I stare down the driver approaching on the side street so they don’t roll all the way into my lane. I even talk to myself as if they can hear me. I can feel my tires reacting to the road surface, and how that changes when I roll over paint, because I don’t have a full suspension. Because of the design of bikes I am forced to be hyper-aware of my situation. While my abilities control the bike – I have very little control over the situation and am one of the most vulnerable people on the road. As the driver of a car there are a million systems and you only have partial control over your vehicle. Because you are in a climate controlled box you are disconnected and only partially attentive to the real world outside your car. But they feel as if they are in total control. Until someone, like a cyclist weaving through gridlocked rush hour traffic, shows them they are not in control. Not at all. They’ve just built a box of illusion to keep them from their fears (other drivers, inclement weather, poor driving skills, etc.)

But perhaps the single best example of this control phenomenon is the American government. We are always told that our country is the best country (whatever that might actually mean). We are “exceptional”. And we know what that means when we see how we act. The United States can act unilaterally without any repercussions on the world stage. The only repercussions are the hate we have created around the world for our government. The government sets up puppet regimes, has military bases all around the world, and has bombed every region of the world. Why? One word: control. They need to control other governments. They need to control markets. Markets aren’t “free”. They are only allowed to do what we say they can do. Which is fundamentally true as we make the market. They market doesn’t objectively exist. We cause it to come into existence. However, as in 2008, we are finally seeing what matters. The government saved the fundamental money-making mechanisms from failing. But they didn’t save anyone else from the fallout. Not home-owners. Not business-owners. Not municipalities. Not pension plans. No one else get saved. The fear was not “what will happen to these people”, but “what will happen to our money-making mechanism”. This also goes for the auto-industry (no matter how much other influence we can attribute to our love affair with cars) we need to have a car industry for control.

It is clear, at least to me, how much the GOP thinks they need to control: almost every other country on earth (“Let’s bomb Iran”), down to every women’s uterus. I have no concept of what a small government could possibly look like when you fundamentally need to control that many different points of interest. The democrats also have their control issues. But both issues are rooted in deep-seeded fear. And this is why I love The Dark Knight’s Joker so much.

As his speech goes: “You know, I just do things.” He is doing what he is innately driven to do. He is entirely free. It is sad to watch what his freedom is being used for, but it is freedom nonetheless. The 500 channels of TV, 4 GOP candidates, and multitudes of genres within which to re-style ourselves (whether it be hipster, thug, geek, gamer, cyclist, chic, anglophile, steampunk, stoner, jock, popped-collar or whatever) are not freedom. Freedom of choice does not equate to freedom. Freedom is the condition of a person. Civilization has never been geared towards being free. Sometimes we find it where we are. Other times we have to go get lost in order to find it. But being free is the all-important bit, not the proliferation of meaningless choices. The Joker is free from having to control, because he is not afraid. The institutions of the world are deathly scared of losing their grip, their place, and their meaning. Because of that they are incredibly controlling. They have power and they will use every last bit of it to keep their place.

I grew up in a distinct culture of religious fear which required a great degree of control. It took me a long time to realize there isn’t a single reason I should be seeking control over anyone else. I was very afraid of people. All the people around me implicitly taught it to me by how much fear of others they had. So long as everything is going according to the plan we are fine. But as soon as the accepted order is disrupted we have a lot of problems. Once we were forced to look at something in the microscope it took over our entire minds to re-order the world.

It is a funny thing that we, as a civilization, are determined to control the world. When, if the biblical narrative can tell us anything, it tells us that God isn’t controlling. God acts. There is a big difference. We believe that the God we believe in is sovereign yet we approach that sovereignty with such an ignorance to believe that God must act as we do.

“You wanted God’s ideas about what was best for you to coincide with your ideas, but you also wanted him to be the almighty Creator of heaven and earth so that he could properly fulfill your wish. And yet, if he were to share your ideas, he would cease to be the almighty Father.” Søren Kierkegaard

This is not a more sophisticated attempt at the pithy: “God works in mysterious ways”. Perhaps the other way around. God is sovereign by his being, not by his action or non-action. God is not fearful and therefore does not seek control. I am not fearful, and therefore I do not seek control. I simply act. I do what I desire to do. And when that means I take my life into my hands by riding my bike through traffic with the meager skill I do have, I am free. And that freedom is why I get so much joy from doing what I desire to do. Because I am not afraid that I don’t have control over everything else. Because I don’t need that control. A truly free man is dangerous, just as the Joker was dangerous. This is why protests are violently quelled. People sitting on their couches enamored with their freedom of choice don’t see their chains. The people yelling in the streets have thrown off their chains.

If I had no joy, then I would be desperately afraid to hold on to the meager materials that I do have in order to be merely content. Content is the enemy, the illusion, of joy.


Client Side Thoughts – All the Rage These Days

Posted: Saturday Jan 28th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Programming | View Comments

A programming post! I know, its a bit unusual considering all thats happening in the world. But this one is worth it. All the rage these is a gorgeous, smooth, animating, fully javascript-enhanced experience for web applications. And I’ve been building them. There really interesting part is the choice of technologies to use – particularly on the backend. We’ve stayed with the tried and true django. Which, out of necessity, requires that certain decisions be made. And django is a wonderful platform I truly wouldn’t imagine working without.

Lots of the current javascript enhancements are going on with “slimmer” backends (Mongo, Couch, Cassandra, etc). Which means that a lot of the traditional things a backend framework does are not done. So their front-end has to pick up the slack. In many cases this means defining models, and url routes. For those of us using beefy backends this definition is already done, and to replicate it on the front end would be ridiculous. So I feel that the beefy backends of the world are being left out by the adventures in javascript. It should not be so.

I’m already templating on the client side with @getify’s HandlebarJS. That brings along with it a nice Promise pattern implementation. And he has also written a nice Gate pattern implementation as well that I use. Of course I’m using jQuery, along with ajaxForm to handle form posts asychronously. And now we are using Plupload to deal with uploading media (ajaxForm does this with an iframe hack that is not very pretty). I’ve written some nice utilities for dumping django model data into JSON, a Command pattern implementation, and a Databinding implementation on the client side as well.

The trick that I would like to work on, is packaging all this goodness into a unified package that takes advantage of django in a much cleaner way. Getting class information and URL route information onto the client side is the first step. Wrapping the JSON returned from the server with this class info and URL routes, tied together to the Databinding interface gets you a model layer, with instance caches. While that model layer is defined in django. With a couple more nice additions a lot of maintenance/house-keeping code won’t need to be written.

The next thing that has jumped into my mind is pushState. But I haven’t played with it enough to know how to implement it in a “framework” type of way.

This client should be written to be entirely decoupled from the actual backend client. You are dealing in URLs, JSON blobs, DOM elements, forms, events and async calls. The fact that django provides this is inconsequential. You could start with a django backend because of all its benefits of getting up quickly. And you can migrate over to other sharded DBs or non-relational DBs or other data sources (e.g. memcache) as you need to scale.

This project’s first philosophical belief is to get up and running without duplicating your work on the client side (D.R.Y.). It’s second would be to work purely with native types as much as possibile (strings, JSON, DOM). It’s third would be modularity/loose coupling. Since its built on native types as much as possible you can use the parts you want, and only the parts you want.


Someone Please Explain

Posted: Friday Dec 9th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Dialogue | View Comments

Why no one else seems to think this is valid?


Things Unseen

Posted: Tuesday Nov 29th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Dialogue, Philosophising | View Comments

I think it would be useful if the concept of the umwelt were embedded in the public lexicon. It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities. Consider the criticisms of policy, the assertions of dogma, the declarations of fact that you hear every day — and just imagine if all of these could be infused with the proper intellectual humility that comes from appreciating the amount unseen. Edge.org – David Eagleman


Crux

Posted: Wednesday Nov 9th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Anthropology, Philosophising | View Comments

The crux of the matter is not correct reasoning but an existential act of appropriation, rejection, or transformation. Such an act does not have the universal validity of a ration statement. Only their existential repercussions endow such experiences with meaning.
Karl Jaspers, Anslem and Nicholas of Cusa, p.86


The Second Bill of Rights

Posted: Tuesday Nov 8th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Anthropology, Politics | View Comments

It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher that ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people – whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights – among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our nation has grown in size and stature, however – as our industrial economy expanded – these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all – regardless of station, race, or creed.

    Among these are:

  • The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops of farms or mines of the nation;
  • The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
  • The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
  • The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home and abroad;
  • The right of every family to a decent home;
  • The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
  • The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
  • The right to a good education;

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.

President Franklin Roosevelt, excerpt from State of the Union, January 11, 1944


One Thing I Wish Occupy Would Think About

Posted: Monday Oct 31st | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Epistemology, Philosophising | View Comments

Is a positive understanding of suffering

We are all aware of the negative aspects of suffering. But we would be remiss to never contemplate the positive aspects. Both of self-induced suffering, and of externally-produced suffering. When I say self-induced, I do not mean that we revile our own selves. Rather, that we forcibly, violently, push ourselves beyond our current abilities. Both physically, and mentally.

This, of course, is not to blame the victim, or validate the suffering inflicted upon groups or individuals. I know for a fact that in Theology the Black Church has had a huge amount to say on this topic. I regret that I have not been able to be read in it yet. Just as Cone argued for God’s own identification in blackness, the cross argues for God’s identification in suffering. What can we say about our this cruciform image of suffering?

I recognize that if Occupy is anything – the last thing it is is theological. So I don’t expect them to co-opt a theologian’s understanding of cruciformity or of suffering. Yet, I do hope (and at some point expect) a broader treatment of suffering in relation to the long history of its thought in this country, and in philosophy.


Dissonance

Posted: Sunday Oct 30th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Philosophising | View Comments

It has always seemed strange to me… the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.” John Steinbeck


The Church is historically and intrinsically an artistic operation – Brueggemann

Posted: Sunday Oct 30th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Anthropology, Epistemology, Philosophising | View Comments


Using the Church in Political Discourse

Posted: Sunday Oct 30th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Dialogue, In the News, Philosophising | View Comments

A couple of times I’ve run into the Church being used polemically when discussing politics. A perfect example is 2012 Presidential Candidate Ron Paul – please go watch. I wish the creator would let me embed it here, but they disabled that ability

As an aside, Senator Paul is incorrect about the cause of the prices in healthcare. The commentator in the video hits the nail on the head when he wonders what the difference between the Church saving him, and the Government saving him. The only real difference is that everyone pays taxes, and only some people voluntarily give to Churches. The commentator, again, rightly remarks about the steady decline in the influence of Churches over the years. Pragmatically – a social safety net like this is getting smaller. But pragmatism is not the issue here. An issue that I find relevant is that Ron Paul failed to be that supporting community when one of his staffers (who does not get health insurance by Ron Paul, his employer) died because he could not pay for the treatment. Ron Paul did not help this man financially.

The issue I find is that the Church is being co-opted into a discourse within which it has no expectation to be. I do not mean here, “the separation of church and state”. I do expect and hope that the Church will be more active than it has been (and all the churches I have been a part of remain active in helping people financially navigate their lives). But, the Church has a right to make their own decisions. To be ‘free’ as Ron Paul would say, to act of their own responsibility. Political arguments cannot assume, presume, or coerce the Church into a position she has taken of her own volition.

A government is responsible for its people. It is responsible to further the people in their collective goals, and individual goals. Certainly every individual must act responsibly. But, frankly, shit happens. Families who are barely feeding and housing themselves should not have to worry about finding a way to stay healthy. Even for myself, a resident of Massachusetts who pays every month for the public healthcare option, carries a risk. There is no responsible investment I can make that will absolve me of all health risks. If I get hit by a car and have permanent injuries (which happen to 2 million Americans every year) insurance will not cover most of it, and I will have to pay out of pocket for the rest of my life. Unlucky, yes, but at 2 million per year, how much progress and human flourishing are we losing? Is it worth losing? Those Americans who want universal health care, and especially a single-payer system, say it is not worth losing our humanity because of money.