Robert Anton Wilson on “irrational rationalism”

“I coined the term irrational rationalism because those people claim to be rationalists, but they’re governed by such a heavy body of taboos. They’re so fearful, and so hostile, and so narrow, and frightened, and uptight and dogmatic…

I wrote this book because I got tired satirizing fundamentalist Christianity… I decided to satirize fundamentalist materialism for a change, because the two are equally comical…

The materialist fundamentalists are funnier than the Christian fundamentalists, because they think they’re rational! …

They’re never skeptical about anything except the things they have a prejudice against. None of them ever says anything skeptical about the AMA, or about anything in establishment science or any entrenched dogma. They’re only skeptical about new ideas that frighten them. They’re actually dogmatically committed to what they were taught when they were in college…”

(from Boing Boing)

Arsène Wenger and the Spirit of Conquest

Despite being both a fan of Arsène Wenger, and his stubborn pursuit of some mad footballing vision only he can see, and a life-long Japanophile, i’ve never really investigated his erstwhile years stewarding J-League side Grampus Eight (now Nagoya Grampus).

Today however, whilst idly browsing the wikipedia entry for the Arsenal manager I came across the fact that he had written a book exclusively for the Japanese market, with the wonderful title Shōsha no Esupuri or “The Spirit of Conquest”, which “highlights his managerial philosophy, ideals and values, as well as his thoughts on Japanese football and the game as a whole.”

A hop skip and a jump to the Amazon page for the tome, and via the magic of Google Translate, we learn more:

Farewell and playback of Nagoya Grampus. Qualities essential role to play in the leader. What really rooted professional football in Japan. Proven track record spotless, well-honed sense of supervision. Based on the analytical skills and amazing powers of observation, with a view of the Japanese sense of surprise and the most sophisticated soccer. Why Did left the Japanese, and the Japanese choose him. One (1) year from the transfer electrifying. The coach also praised the Holy Land in England, Japan recalls and Proposal for the Future.

A cheap laugh, maybe, at the expense of poor translation, but there is something magical in the description of “the analytical skills and amazing powers of observation, with a view of the Japanese sense of surprise and the most sophisticated soccer.”

The Corporate Network

There is growing evidence and speculation that Twitter is about to fundamentally change the core experience for users – embedded images, video, blog posts becoming the norm (as opposed to the primarily text-only experience at the moment – with links to such things that you can expand on choice) – and (more significantly) to a filtered/trend based main feed (ala Facebook). They’ve also being consistently reigning in access to their API over the past year or so, further implying they want full control of the Twitter experience – so they can fundamentally alter it.

Last week I de-activated my Facebook account. The reasons for this were many (which I may come back to in another post) but one of the things which finally did it for me was this feeling that I was less and less in control of what I saw. It’s now widely known that a users main feed is algorithmically filtered by Facebook. This has always bugged me – I would be fine with it if I also had the option of a fire-hose unfiltered feed, but they don’t offer that. But what compounded it was their introduction of a system whereby pages/brands could pay more to have their posts reach a wider audience. From Facebook’s point of view this makes sense – so much content flows through it, and many people frequently log in but for short periods – they wanted a way to keep content out there for longer – and to make more money off of advertisers. As a user however this is a fundamental shift in the experience. When I logged in recently I felt less like I was engaging in a social network, rather than staring at a TV playing ads. (Users were also culpable for this with more and more ‘share this to win an iPad shenanigans and some kind of ‘offer claiming’ system)

It’s a cliché now – but yes – on Facebook you are not the customer you are the product. Someone has to pay to keep the servers running. But whereas Google (leaving aside any ‘selling on’ of information/tracking etc.) make this a relatively painless experience – they deliver ads on the periphery of the main experience – or clearly mark sponsored search results – I never felt (some what naively maybe) that the core experience of their products was being compromised. My emails still are mine, the search results are still there. But with Facebook the main objective – of socialising – is being manipulated for advertising revenue. Sure, Google are storing tonnes of data about me and using it to direct advertising at me – that’s another problem for another day – but from an experiential point of view they are doing it in an unobtrusive manner. Google+ does by default include trending topics in my feed, but it’s a relatively easy matter to remove them completely (if I wish)

Now it seems the same is about to happen with Twitter. Talk is of the ‘Discover’ tab – which shows you trending content etc – is to become the core primary feed for users. This is fine if I can still have my plain old unfiltered feed. But if that goes (and Dave Winer has also suggested – how do we know it hasn’t already?) then for me Twitter would, like Facebook, be completely compromised as a network.

In thinking about all this, I’ve started to formulate some basic principles for a social network I would like to see.

1. Access to an unfiltered feed. Fine, have your advertiser biased trend-based feed, but let me also just see MY feeds.

2. User-Filters. Let us control what we see, when.

3. Embedded media. I’m fine with images, previews of links being embedded. Google+ does this quite well (just a pity no one is on it) – Tumblr too. But let me collapse/expand them at will.

4. Equal playing field. Don’t give extra features (such as more words) to people who pay. That tips the network in favour of the big players and is the road to ruin.

5. Unobtrusive advertising. I accept someone has to pay to keep the lights on – but work out how to do it in a way that (a) doesn’t feel like I am staring at a rotating billboard or (b) doesn’t take over my feed in a manipulative way.

As soon as the ability to ‘pay’ to influence the core experience (as opposed to advertising in and around the core experience) is given I think a social network’s worth has to be questioned seriously by users.

The solution may well be to pony up and pay for such an experience, like app.net. But I fear app.net is an echo chamber of smug early adopters.

The Double Bind

This week in Ireland we had a referendum in which only 33.5% of the electorate voted. This has sparked some debate as to why people did not vote, and how do you solve this problem etc. Scanning various online streams, some have suggested that voting should be mandatory. More so than this was a general frustration or anger at people who did not vote – with the suggestion that it is a moral duty and imperative to vote in polls. An idea which as I noted, was encouraged officially.

Then today, as it was Remembrance Sunday, there were a few stories from the UK about the wearing of the Poppy to commemorate the war dead, and in particular those who choose not to wear it.

As I thought about both of these things – voting and wearing a symbol of remembrance – and people’s expectation that you should do these things – I thought of Alan Watts description of the double-bind game, from his classic “The Book”

A double-bind game is a game with self-contradictory rules, a game doomed to perpetual self-frustration—like trying to invent a perpetual- motion machine in terms of Newtonian mechanics, or trying to trisect any given angle with a straightedge and compass. The social double- bind game can be phrased in several ways:

The first rule of this game is that it is not a game.
Everyone must play.
You must love us.
You must go on living.
Be yourself, but play a consistent and acceptable role.
Control yourself and be natural.
Try to be sincere.

Essentially, this game is a demand for spontaneous behavior of certain kinds. Living, loving, being natural or sincere—all these are spontaneous forms of behavior: they happen “of themselves” like digesting food or growing hair. As soon as they are forced they acquire that unnatural, contrived, and phony atmosphere which everyone deplores—weak and scentless like forced flowers and tasteless like forced fruit. Life and love generate effort, but effort will not generate them. Faith—in life, in other people, and in oneself—is the attitude of allowing the spontaneous to be spontaneous, in its own way and in its own time. This is, of course, risky because life and other people do not always respond to faith as we might wish. Faith is always a gamble because life itself is a gambling game with what must appear, in the hiding aspect of the game, to be colossal stakes. But to take the gamble out of the game, to try to make winning a dead certainty, is to achieve a certainty which is indeed dead.

The alternative to a community based on mutual trust is a totalitarian police-state, a community in which spontaneity is virtually forbidden.

A free democratic society that forces you to engage in those very activities that make it a free democracy is surely a double-bind? And, in the case of wearing the Poppy, that very act itself is only meaningful because people choose to do it. It must lose all potency when it becomes a mandatory activity.

Vote and Die

I passed an otherwise innocuous looking bus-shelter ad for the today’s Children’s Referendum the other day, and I was struck by this piece of copy:

We all have a part to play.
Make sure you play yours.
And vote.

This, for me, speaks volumes about the ruling ideology of our country (and probably most Western liberal democracies) and how the powers-that-be see us. Whilst appearing to be an appeal for us to vote, it also subtly reinforces the hierarchical structures in which we find ourselves in society, where it is made clear that our ‘part to play’ is to simply tick a box. Leave the decision making to others – that is their part to play. Our responsibility as citizens is to simply confirm or reject what we are offered periodically. Nothing more. And in the case of Ireland, if we reject what we are offered, we will be asked again until they get the right answer – a more honest ad would probably say “Make sure you play yours. And vote yes.”

Occupy Debt

It might be early days, but this seems like a brilliant idea from Occupy Wall Street, “Rolling Jubilee”

OWS is going to start buying distressed debt (medical bills, student loans, etc.) in order to forgive it. As a test run, we spent $500, which bought $14,000 of distressed debt. We then ERASED THAT DEBT. (If you’re a debt broker, once you own someone’s debt you can do whatever you want with it – traditionally, you hound debtors to their grave trying to collect. We’re playing a different game. A MORE AWESOME GAME.)

This is a simple, powerful way to help folks in need — to free them from heavy debt loads so they can focus on being productive, happy and healthy. As you can see from our test run, the return on investment approaches 30:1. That’s a crazy bargain!

I was a fan of Occupy to begin with, but it seems they lost their way, but I’ve always loved the movement and this is such a good idea. I’d love to see Occupy Dame Street do something similar in Ireland (and not protesting family homes…).

via Kottke

A History of Non-Violence

I’ve written a few times on my thoughts on political change, from which I’ve synthesised a general personal outlook which sees a need for change, but has no faith that traditional representative ideological politics (specifically voting for Party X) can help. The solution, for me, must come via us ordinary folk changing how we live our lives in such a way that we could completely change the system from the Bottom Up. This could happen, through a “Mindful Revolution” – an awakening of the populace to our state of affairs and just how we could change them without any help from The Powers That Be.

On reflection, whilst this still holds true for me, it is admittedly pretty naive. It’s essentially a dream of a solution rather than any thing practically workable, but I think it’s on the right track. I recently (re)discovered Gary Snyder’s “Buddhist Anarchism” (I had read it a few years ago but only now really appreciated it), and it made me rethink about this stuff. Snyder’s piece is a really great vision, but it’s (most likely by design) broad enough so that it can be interpreted in different ways. It’s a compass more than a map, but it’s a strong compass.

In reading about it, I came across the work of activist Ken Knabb. In particular, his writings on ‘engaged Buddhism’. ‘Engaged Buddhism’ is a catch-all term for social engaged Buddhist movements, such as Vietnamise monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s community and activities.

Knabb has delivered two sharp and thought-provoking articles which are giving me a lot of food for thought. In “Strong Lessons for Engaged Buddhists” he argues that engaged Buddhists’ social awareness has “remained extremely limited.” The problem being an aversion to any kind of direct action, confrontation or violence which Knabb says will prevent any kind of social change.

If the engaged Buddhists have failed to explicitly oppose the socioeconomic system and have limited themselves to trying to alleviate a few of its more appalling effects, this is for two reasons. First, they are not even clear about what it is. Since they are allergic to any analysis that seems “divisive,” they can hardly hope to understand a system based on class divisions and bitter conflicts of interest. Like almost everyone else they have simply swallowed the official version of reality, in which the collapse of the Stalinist state-capitalist regimes in Russia and East Europe supposedly demonstrates the inevitability of the Western form of capitalism.

In “Evading the Transformation of Reality”, Knabb more precisely makes this point – arguing that what many perceive to be ‘social change’ is actually ‘social service’ (for instance, working with the homeless or drug addicts is serving society – but is not attempting to tackle the underlying root cause of these problems). Knabb implies that many do not have the stomach for true ‘social change’. And whilst in the second piece, Knabb has some explicit criticisms for engaged Buddhists, I think many of his ideas can also be generally levelled at any liberal protestor, such as the aversion to confrontation and a lack of commitment to really study alternative view points.

I am also reminded of Slavoj Zizek’s criticism of “Western Buddhism”, which he claims

enables you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it; that you are well aware of how worthless this spectacle is; and that what really matters to you is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always with-draw.

Knabb’s thoughts on ‘violence’ are probably the most challenging:

It is true that many forms of violent struggle, such as terrorism or minority coups, are inconsistent with the sort of open, participatory organization required to create a genuinely liberated global society. An antihierarchical revolution can only be carried out by the people as a whole, not by some group supposedly acting on their behalf; and such an overwhelming majority would have no need for violence except to neutralize any pockets of the ruling minority that may violently try to hold on to their power. But any significant social change inevitably involves some violence. It would seem more sensible to admit this fact, and simply strive to minimize violence as far as possible.

Zizek posits that “Western Buddhists” can absolve themselves of any responsibility for changing their environment – and Knabb charges that “engaged Buddhists” will avoid even the mildest confrontation. Whilst I still believe in what I’ve written here and here about the possibility for social change, I am now forced to consider that any course of action would necessitate some violence. Indeed, even if we were to have our Mindful Revolution, would the current powers-that-be allow this? And if not, would that then make violent confrontation inevitable?

One to ponder.

Also, if you have the stomach for it, here is an hour long lecture by Žižek on the topic of ‘Western Buddhism’, in which he makes some thought-provoking statements about Buddhism. (I should stress they are thought provoking, not necessarily true or accurate – American Buddhist does a good job here of refuting many of his wild claims) He also suggests that the Lion King’s “The Circle of Life” could be used to justify the Holocaust, and makes an entertaining claim about the nature of traditional Tibetan Buddhist music. It’s good fun.