Thursday, March 22, 2012

Free Will by Sam Harris No2

Anyone who comes out of reading Sam Harris's brain event-provoking book fully convinced that they did not freely choose to do so, obviously need not bother procrastinating for long about whether to follow it up with Kenneth Weisbrode's On Ambivalence.

As for Hamlet, what a complete bloody waste of time! For it may appear that we are having trouble making up our minds, but we aren' least according to Mr Harris.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Free Will by Sam Harris No1

Being atheistic with regards to the existence of a creator, but agnostic with regard to the possibility of transcendentals, my not-strictly materialist cosmogony is one that finds itself intermittently beleaguered by the strident philosophical naivety of certain men of science and other commentators who march under the banner of Neo-Atheism.

This does not mean however, that I wish to count myself amongst the present wave of more accommodating cuddly atheists, in whose ranks the former Mistress of my college, Baroness Mary Warnock was recently listed largely on the grounds that she has a partiality for a bit of religious sing-song though on that basis even Richard Dawkins is a bit of a soft toy.

Sam Harris, American author of The End of Faith and now this little volume, which could be subtitled The End of Human Agency, clearly has no intention of being either snuggly or caressible. The book is written in the tone of the man setting out the sort of hard facts most of us simply won't face up to. And he sets them out with just the sort of obstinate determination not to admit the possibility of a bigger picture that the Neo-Atheists have made themselves notorious for, even managing to present his colleague Dan Dennet as callow and limp wristed on the matter of our apparently non-existent free will. (More on that later...)

In essence Harris's argument is based on the following observation: thanks to modern neuroimaging techniques, we can see that the human mind operates in two separate streams, one objective, one subjective. In the first of these brain events occur, in the second the feeling that the owner of the brain has authorial control over these events. Given the detectable delay between the two streams, our sense of having free will is an illusion, Harris therefore concludes.

There's nothing wrong with the facts in Harris's polemic. Yet its a wonder that he believes them to be so compelling a proof against our ability to shape our own actions. Scanning a human brain from the outside can indeed tell us many new and interesting things about its function, but we are still a long way from a comprehensive scientific understanding of the mind.

But the real weakness of the case Harris is making lies in its assumption that the two streams of activity in the brain are stuck in real time mode (or at least one is in real time and the other thinks it is, but isn't) and entirely disconnected from each other. In other words, there is no kind of feedback loop in place between the personal and the impersonal mind. It doesn't take a great deal of subjective brain scanning to realise that this is unlikely to be the true state of affairs...


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Cuba Travel Diary - Getting Online

While Guatemala is one of the most developed countries in the world when it comes to mobile phone networks — listing 20.7m user accounts in a country of 13.8m inhabitants* — in contrast, only around 1m (out of 11m) Cubans have cellphones and there are no prepaid plans on offer from the state telephone company. Landlines are also uncommon: 15.5 per 100 inhabitants.

At just 3%, Internet penetration is also at the lowest level in the western hemisphere, with home usage actually illegal. Cuba is thus a sobering destination for any self-respecting geek to get to grips with, though there can fewer better places to study WOM transmission. Anyway, one hardly expects the Castro brothers to be quaking in their faded green fatigues at the prospect of a 'Cuban Spring' any time soon.

The larger Habaguanex hotels do tend to offer at least one connected desktop PC for guests' usage. One gets online by purchasing a scratch card at reception, costing 5 CUC ($5) an hour**. The trouble is that the hotel employees are not fully trusted to manage the storage of these cards, which are kept in a special draw, locked and unlocked by a roaming official who drops in twice a day for this express purpose. At the time most people check into their hotel the cards are already off limits, and so one tends to have to wait until mid-morning the next day to get an e-fix. And then the card may only be used at the hotel which issued it.

One is able to open and close sessions to conserve the time on the scratch card, but the connections are generally so slow that it can often take 30 minutes or more just to read a couple of emails, and in most instances I found myself having to use the basic HTML version of gmail in order to get access to my messages. Everything comes through a proxy, so some of the sites I access for work here in Guatemala were obviously not on the approved list. After a while one tends to give up.

The slowness of Cuba's Internet connection is one of those things that are habitually blamed on the 50-year-old US embargo (as the island has historically depended on satellite links to reach out to the wider infrastructure), but the arrival of a fat new fiber-optic cable from Venezuela last year did not seem to have improved things much when I visited in November.

I did however stumble across one remarkably speedy fixed connection at the ETECSA office in Trinidad***, and on my last morning in Habana Vieja I discovered the sole location offering wi-fi (6 CUC an hour) — the business centre on the Hotel Parque Central's mezzanine level — which is additionally the only facility in this part of town where one is able to print out a document (such as a boarding pass...).

Any hope I might have had that things would be a little less stringent and expensive at the hotels managed by private firms soon evaporated. Not only do they sell the cards at a mark-up from the socialist price, their equipment is often older and their connections yet more sluggish. The Meliá-run Paradisus Rio de Oro five star resort in Holguín province boasts rooms with wi-fi on its website: just the sort of barefaced lie any totalitarian state would usually be really proud of.

* However 70,000 handsets were stolen here in the first quarter of 2011, a problem that the Cubans can consider themselves fortunate not to have to contend with!

** The average salary on the island is just 20-30 CUC a month.

*** These phone company offices require a passport number to associate with the scratch card number, or in the case of locals, an ID number. They know what you are looking at...

A higher doody

This is truly bizarre. Surely a much worse an example is being set to the Santorum core constituency by the supreme Pontiff's own spring break visit to Mexico next week?

Santorum's apparently confused logic — on the one hand he's essentially a theocrat yet speaks the language of libertarianism is depressingly typical of the American right these days. Yet one recalls that this odd juxtapostion of totalitarianism and libertarianism was very much to the fore in the discourse of the Spanish left before the Civil War, and only really started to properly come apart during that conflict.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Pink Champagne On Ice No1

For some time now I've been wanting to get down a few thoughts on the enchantment of hotels and in particular the allure of the hotel as a literary location.

The completion of Roberto Bolaño's The Third Reich, predominantly set in the fictional Del Mar hotel in an unnamed Costa Brava resort town, prompted me to turn to an old favourite from university days, Joseph Roth's Hotel Savoy.

Roth's Lodz-based establishment belongs to the golden age of hotels, the half century bisected by the year 1900. Whatever their star class, these are surely always the most evocative places to spend a night.

Hotels make for such potent locations for dramatic action because they have an inner life which can be made to erupt onto the smooth outer surface of the guest experience in both expected and unexpected ways.

One of the most striking passages in Udo's diary in Bolaño's novel occurs on the morning of September 17. The stranded German boardgame champion reports a "session" with chambermaid Clarita — in much the same way he might have reported the matutinal consumption of a croissant — before going on to recount in far greater detail, events which other people (with the possible exception of Dominique Strauss-Kahn) might have meditated on somewhat less fixedly than say, sex with a member of the hotel staff.

The regulated experience will always have its fissures. For example, the all-inclusive Paradisus Rio de Oro in Holguín province was a carefully controlled exercise in insulation. Of the guests attending the wedding of my nephew back in November I was the only one who had traversed the island to reach the resort, and so perhaps the only one who had seen enough of the Cuba outside of it to seriously question why there did not appear to be a single individual of predominantly African descent on the permanent staff. Officially at least, 10% of the population are black and the proportion is higher in the east. In the end I concluded that this anomaly was probably less the result of overtly negative action in the hiring policy, than that of a possibly less malignant exercise in cultural stage management.

On the day I checked out of the Rio de Oro I asked the (blonde) Cuban lady at the concierge if she could order me a car to take me to the bus station in Holguín. She did, but not before asking if she could tag along too. It became clear during the course of the hour-long journey that the man of her life lived in the provincial capital and given that regular non-commercial traffic along Cuba's highways is almost non-existent, most people rely on cadging rides to get around. When I first loaded my bags in the taxi I thought she had decided not to tag along after all, but I had forgotten that the hotel's staff were only permitted to enter or exit the resort from their own door close to the main gate, and this was where she was waiting to clamber into the back.

I enjoyed my stay at this exceptional hotel, but it would not be a stretch to intuit something vaguely sinsister in the well-trained, English-reciting chirpiness of its hirelings, especially if one were to go on to ponder its potential affinities with say, one of Michael Crichton's hyper-resorts gone bad. (Westworld, Jurassic Park etc.)

Hotels of a certain age carry an extra strata of mystery in their history, the layer at which the an author can suggest a commixture of inner life with inner demons. One always gets a frisson of the sort of post-monitions Kubrick exploited so effectively at the end of The Shining on encountering an internal corridor livened up with fading black and white images encapsulating scenes within and without the hotel from a bygone era as V and I discovered at the Posada la Anjana in Puente Viesgo.


Monday, March 05, 2012


Spoiler alerts...

Carrie Mathison is a very creditable addition to the recently burgeoning ranks of socially inept, borderline bonkers female investigators. Claire Danes fully deserved her Golden Globe for this role and overall the show deserved its own gong for Best TV Drama.

That said, it was at its best when it was feeding our interest with the is he or isn't he dynamic through roughly the first seven episodes. Deep down we had to know that he was, but there was enough genuine paranoia knocking around in the head of his principal doubter that we were highly susceptible to this play on our hopes and fears.

After this point the narrative took a stumble, though one suspects it was at least in part a feigned piece of clumsiness. Still, I never felt Homeland quite recovered its composure after that, in spite of the undoubtedly exciting near climax.

I'd already been wondering whether the CIA was really an organisation of rank amateurs led by a kind of David Brent figure when in walked the FBI in order to demonstrate where the show's political leanings really lay. Amateurs they might be, but the folk at Langley were bleeding heart liberals compared to their Quantico-trained counterparts, and this rather arch distinction struck me as pure silliness. And in general the latter stages of the season seemed to be at pains to show off more rounded edges than you will find at your local Apple store.

This story originated on Israeli TV and one suspects that therein lies the origin of some of the detectable stretch marks. In the Middle East the issues are that much more up-close-and-personal, such that I would have fewer problems believing in the figure of the ideologically-flipped front-line soldier. Bring this plot to the US and a more expansive cultural (and geopoltical) reality becomes the backdrop, and somehow in this format, it can't quite jump the credibility hurdle.

The scriptwriters seemed to want to have their cake and eat it here. For Brody to be both a fanatic and yet still a sympathetic figure, a somewhat spurious back story involving a government cover-up has had to be concocted. It's as if we are being asked to consider that the real American equivalent of the UK's native suicide bomber is a Democrat not a Teahadi Republican.

Meanwhile Brody's former partner is permitted to go full-on terrorist without so much as a hint of explanation (or sensitive depictions of the Muslim way of life). So one has to conclude that Marine 1 and Marine 2 represent two unlikely extremes, and thus two cop-outs in terms of addressing why a man out on the sharp edge of the war on terror might 'turn'. I could also not help but notice that the two least sympathetic most blunt-headed characters in the series are the two most prominent African Americans.

There were also a few of the kind of arbitrary plot points that got on my nerves a bit during Forbrydelsen (The Killing)*. Brody is worried that Carrie might goss about their affair and scupper his political career, but surely the fact that he has returned from Iraq a practicing Muslim would be an equally, if not more dangerous piece of personal information to protect?

Anyway, all these caveats aside, I can't wait for the next batch of episodes. I somehow suspect that the Israeli version ended with more of a bang at the end of its first season.

* Like, why would Meyer's last words be a cryptic reference to the design of the killer's sweat shirt and not his surname!

Belize gets Prince Harry...

....while we get Joe Biden.

It's endlessly fascinating how Belize, with its higher relative homicide rate, has not had any trouble passing itself off as a land of "music, fun and laughs" (even its ancient, human-sacrificing residents are getting the benefit of the doubt here)...whereas Guatemala is consistently reported as a land of violence and misery. Stereotyping ahoy?