Monday, 31 January 2011

Two Hit Combo

I was introduced to Robert Cox back then in my International Political Economy class and now I'm revisiting his work under the Marxism chapter in World Politics class.

Current Marxist schools of thought are difficult to define because there are so many branches, but most of them can logically lead to this 'supreme' conclusion that spectacularly takes out its intellectual rivals, Realism and Liberalism, at the same time.

"Global acceptance of neo-liberalism is very much in the interests of the developed world and has involved a large degree of coercion. That such policies seem 'natural' and 'commonsense' is an indication of the hegemonic power of the United States." Thus, Realists have become liberals when they advise the US government to push for the Washington Consensus on free trade and liberalization in order to sustain the US's power in the international political arena. On the other hand, Liberalism has simply been reduced to a tool as Realists seek to preserve the prevailing order.


Wednesday, 26 January 2011

If you're both rich and results-oriented, you will eventually pay off people to do work you're personally responsible for (if you haven't already done so).

Sunday, 23 January 2011


Peace isn't a natural state or order. It has to be constructed.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Habla Espanol

iHola! Buenos tardes. Me llamo Jose, soy de Singapur.

I'm taking Spanish as an art elective in my final term, and it's turning out to be quite a handful! I think the mind is amazing in that it doesn't jumble up the various language syntaxes. So I don't end up messing up my English language knowledge as I begin to develop this entire new language structure.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

That Is Not Dead Which Can Eternal Lie, And With Strange Aeons Even Death May Die

I've always been terribly fascinated with the unfathomable. Anything that can potentially be unfathomable, such as comprehending infinity or something darker, like peering into a pit of endless sorrow, has never failed to captivate me.

This is why H. P. Lovecraft's work, particularly the Cthulhu mythos franchise, continues to grip my mind. From Wikipedia: "Lovecraft's guiding literary principle was what he termed "cosmicism" or "cosmic horror", the idea that life is incomprehensible to human minds and that the universe is fundamentally alien. Those who genuinely reason, like his protagonists, gamble with sanity. ... Lovecraft's protagonists usually achieve the antithesis of traditional gnosis and mysticism by momentarily glimpsing the horror of ultimate reality and the abyss."

I think one aspect of my fixation with the unfathomable is that perhaps unfathomable things are not meant to be clearly understood by humans. So this raises curious questions, like what if a person did catch a glimpse of something unfathomable? Is it rosy, like what some people will consider to be divine, such as Truth? Or will it be that because we are not meant to fathom the unfathomable, its sheer power will destroy those who come within its range? Is the unfathomable the indication of the existence of a realm that we might come to describe as Infinite, Perfect, Ideal, Omnipotent, Pure or Godly?

Absolute power also falls into this train of consideration, as does notions of eternity and infinite regress.

I felt that Inception explored this notion to an extent when it broached the issue of death during a dream. The story asserts that people wake up when they die in a dream because it is a means of escape back to 'reality' (in inverted commas here because the movie deliberately leaves us questioning reality itself). But if the dreamer is unable to wake up and dies in the dream, he will remain in limbo and lose his mind.

To me, that sounds like what it possibly means to experience infinite torment and anguish in a short span of time. Is that what it does - derail the mind?

Is insanity also likenable to a computer hanging up? A computer (or program) can hang because it encounters a programming paradox. In one kind of paradox which is relevant to what I'm talking about, the computer encounters a circular (or catch-22) instruction in which the question and answer loops infinitely. For a silly example, I execute a function which asks the computer to create a list of emails if the executable file A.exe is open. However, what if there is a catch, or programming flaw, such that A.exe can open only if the email list is already created and thus needs to create the list of emails prior to the execution of the function? But, as can be logically seen, the creation of the email list requires file A.exe to be open. It's a silly example and I'm not sure if this is really a programming problem, but it's one I've thought of off the top of my head to illustrate the point.

The computer thus gets trapped in an endless loop of contingent requests that can never be fulfilled within the programming instruction.

What happens when a person's mind gets trapped in a loop like that? Given that there are many important things in life that are inherently paradoxical because humans are unable to reconcile them, does the attempt to genuinely reason and reconcile lead to Lovecraft's belief that sanity will be compromised? Does this suggest that perhaps sanity is a specific human trait that is meant (or simply happens) to keep us from actually perceiving what is absolutely and objectively true? Is God the ultimate paradox, which is why we can only reconcile it via faith and not science and reason?

Also, what happens when an unstoppable force meets an unmovable object? Is the question really moot, as many people often like to dismiss it since it is simply inconceivable? That precisely brings me back to the fact that this is an unfathomable idea, and I'm all the more fascinated by it.

As long as I feel like I'm not compromising on my sanity pursuing these mental obsessions, I guess I'll keep at it for a long while. And maybe only in death will I know the answer.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Rational Vices, Good Ol' Business Logic And Power

I've just finished lapping up Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational, an exploration of the systematic irrational behaviour of human beings.

The book is implicitly anti-corporate establishment, as it dishes out nugget after nugget of problems pertaining to the economic institutions of our global world. But perhaps it is not so implicit after all, because it attacks the most fundamental premise and stronghold of economics - that humans are completely rational beings. Yes, indeed humans are rational and thinking creatures, but dogmatic hardliner economists not only fail to account for the systematic irrationalities of humans (such as fear, anger, perceptual biases, etc, which time and again falsify economic theory) but, even worse, often deliberately omit these irrationalities to preserve the elegance of the theory (arbitrage, anyone?).

This completely flies in the face of science and knowledge, because while it is perfectly fine to encounter scenarios that oppose the logic of established theories, those inconsistencies must be addressed and put to good use to further refine what we already know. What's worse is that many of our global economic and financial institutions are designed around such narrow economic principles, and whole societies are expected to fit into those institutions. It comes as no surprise that we have economic failures, because the rationality of classical economics and humans are, to put it straightforwardly, incompatible at some important parts.

Dan Ariely gives some interesting case studies to support his argument. For instance, studies on salaries and bonuses show that huge paychecks do not guarantee better performance. So, on what grounds are bankers justifying their huge salaries? The commonplace argument is that high salaries are needed to ensure that the best men are retained for the job (or else they will move elsewhere), but this is precisely the standard free market logic that Dan Ariely strives to assert is highly flawed. So when the US$700 billion bailout package went straight back into the pockets of the people running and messing up the financial institutions, it is obviously offensive to millions of taxpayers, but what can they do against an economic logic of salary-performance that is virtually accepted as a natural law? (For more interesting findings, I strongly suggest reading the book.)

Reading The Corporation by Joel Bakan does little to placate any already-existing (and growing) sentiments I have about the state of our financially globalized world now. The corporation began in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in America and Britain as corporate entities ran by stockbrokers who sought to make money via speculation. Most of these corporate entities failed, leading to loss of livelihoods, and their respective governments were quick to persecute these stockbrokers. However, after Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine and unwittingly kickstarted the industrial revolution (yes, Joel Bakan brilliantly uses the term 'unwittingly'), corporations were revived because they were the only organized entities that could generate the huge amounts of capital needed to drive industrialization and production.

In the span of 300 years, the power balance has switched in favour of the corporation today. What started out as a damned organization that could be shut down at the whisk of a commissioner's pen, corporations today pervade every aspect of our lives and significantly control society and politics.

I digress, but in some ways I see this as similar to how sociologists trace the rise of male dominance and female oppression - capital accumulation. Because there are sociological and biological conditions under which men end up driven to accrue resources (extrinsic value) in exchange for the intrinsic value of women (in a most basic sense, reproductive capability), women in general rely on the resources that men provide and, in most patriarchal societies, become structurally dependent on men's resources.

Joel Bakan's argument sounds quite similar in that the world today hugely depends on the immense capital that can be accrued by corporations, and we are as reliant on the provisions of corporations as corporations are pervasive. Joel Bakan's angst comes from how little check and balance there is against the power of a organizational entity that is fundamentally not concerned with the welfare of society as much as it is concerned with profits.

I will eventually hope to end up in academia and presumably become a psychology researcher given my interest in the behaviour and psychology of the individual (and belief that understanding the individual will provide much insight into the issues of our world). However, my interest in philosophical, moral and social aspects also suggests otherwise; that I can't be a psychologist purely. The tendency for psychological academia to think of moral constructs as beyond the scope of psychology cannot be satisfactory to my curiosities. It is a dream that I can one day do some work that crosses the disciplines of psychology, sociology, politics, philosophy and anthropology.

Also, all the reading I'm doing, and my interests and drives, clearly makes me a heretic in SMU. Thank goodness I'll be ending my undergraduate term (and irrelevant university core modules that have only served to mess up my GPA, under which my academic capability will be cruelly judged boohoo) in a few more months.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Learned Helplessness

I was revisiting Seligman and Maier's famous/notorious 1967 experiment on learned helplessness this morning, and what struck me was how similar the symptoms of the 'yoked' dog were to human depression.

In brief, the experiment (which is potentially quite upsetting to dog/animal lovers) involved two dogs - the control dog and the yoked dog. In the first part of the test, both dogs were administered mild electric shocks (harmless though annoying) at random times. However, the control dog's room had a beeper that sounded before the shock came and a switch that allowed the dog to turn off the electric shock. On the other hand, the yoked dog did not have the beeper warning nor the switch. The control dog soon learned to use the switch to prevent the shocks from occurring, while the yoked dog could do nothing about the shocks.

After the first round of experimentation, the dogs were transferred to a shuttle box.

What happens is that the electric shocks now come from the ground on either side of the shuttle box (halved by a fence). Like in the first experiment, electric shocks came at random times, but this time both dogs could witness a warning light coming on which signified the onset of another shock.

Having acclimated to the environment of the first experiment, both dogs transferred their knowledge into the second study. It was found that the control dog soon learned to jump over the fence whenever the light came on. Although it was understandably anxious, it appeared relatively happy.

The fascinating and depressing case was of the yoked dog - it simply lay in the corner of its shuttle box whimpering. Although it now had the means to escape the shocks like the control dog, the experience from the first experiment taught it that it did not understand the relationships between cause and effect. Consequently, the yoked dog became helpless in its general approach to life.

Even more interestingly/troublingly, the dog later exhibited symptoms similar to people suffering from chronic depression, such as ulcers and a weakening of the immune system.

I'm revisiting this study also at a time when I've recently watched The Cove, a documentary about dolphin captivity and a man's effort to fight against the dolphin industry after he witnessed Flipper's depression and suicide, and after I went to the zoo on Boxing Day. Did Flipper experience the same learned helplessness? Are animals in zoo captivity experiencing the same problems? I'm not entirely sure, because it doesn't appear like the zoo is making a blatant attempt at mistreating the animals, but at the same time we do not really know exactly what these animals are feeling.

In addition, it makes me wonder how the roots of depression form in human development. Even very mild cases of depression, such as low self-esteem which we certainly won't classify as depression, have symptoms that are associated with pessimism, helplessness, failure to perceive alternatives/options, etc.

I'm pretty sure that at some point some degree of learning happens in a child's life which tells him that he is either more empowered or more helpless (understanding vs not understanding the relationships between cause and effect). I think that the natural curiosity of children helps them figure this out at a very young age, and I've always believed that parents have an important responsibility to satisfy that curiosity. Other seemingly mundane aspects of a toddler's life, such as being able to turn on or off the room light switches, can also go a long way if caregivers of the toddler empower it to take matters into its own little hands.

Also, what aspects of depression are biological? Why is it that females experience this more than males - is it because women are less empowered, or could it also be in the biological makeup of the sexes? How does the body break down with the onset of depression? It appears that when a person (or any living social creature) experiences learned helplessness, the body also takes on a character of futility, indicating that our bodies work in tandem with our mental health (consider placebo effects, or how we get better when we actually believe we will get better).

Perhaps it all really stems from the basis of a social being's understanding of cause and effect, because with this understanding, it can take control of its life. This is the nature of empowerment.

Intellectual Troughs

I'm hitting an intellectual trough lately. I feel either like I'm out of ideas or there just aren't that many interesting thoughts swirling around in my head compared to my more prolific past. There were periods back then where I'd be churning out post after post of untested ideas, theories and concepts day in and day out, but at the moment I'm barely there.

But I'm not one to despair, because to the seasoned thinking mind this is an interesting issue in itself to be explored.

I think one reason for the recent slowdown is that I might be academically maturing. This means that I am less likely to present an idea until it has been well reasoned and thought out. Before I am satisfied that an idea is solid, I am unlikely (these days, at least) to put it forward. This will definitely result in far less presented ideas, but when they do come out they're already pretty weighty.

Part of the maturing process also leads to greater streamlining (or possibly cynicism) of thoughts and ideas. It could either mean that I am far more quick to dismiss new ideas that come to mind when I spot possible flaws in them (which is easier now that I know more), or that my fascination with things has slowed down. It's not that I am any less fascinated in general, but that as one gets more seasoned, the novelty of experiences in a purely quantitative sense decreases. For instance, I was far more horrified by depression back then when I first discovered it than now when I've come to understand it more. There is a settling down effect going on here.

Another aspect of my intellectual trough which I think is more manageable is that I've generally zen-ed out more over the past two years. This can be both a good and a bad thing.

The good thing is that, obviously with becoming more zen, I take far less issue with things, because I'm more at peace with things that normally shake us and we are less in control of. I am also more willing to forgive people for the stupid things they do and attribute it to the situation.

However, being zen means that I am less likely to question, judge and challenge ideas, people and situations. Being more forgiving means that I am quicker to reconcile any peeves or frustrations I have. I definitely remember that when I was less cautious (both about making mistakes and offending people) and more controversial with what I said or thought about, I pushed boundaries more and developed more ideas. I certainly ruffled some feathers along the way, but in terms of being in a constant state of thought and idea generation, I was right up there like a machine. Those were very prolific times which encouraged me greatly to believe that I had the productivity to be a good academic.

I'm not doubting my ambition of being an academic and publishing my own research work at all. But it would be great if I can get that fire back, and ensure that it remains consistent. Lulls may be good in some ways, such as to relax or zen out, but they can snowball into bigger intellectual sinkholes, and once they become extended they represent huge sunk cost. I think the key is to be able to snap out of intellectual troughs like these at will.

Perhaps this calls for some life or mind hacking techniques.

Another worry is that there were times that particular issues really bothered me. At one time, I was extremely concerned with understanding power balances between social entities (both between persons and between groups). At another time, I was very curious about self esteem. The burning desire to find out more about these issues at those times and the belief that I had solutions was so strong that I could write books off them.

But each phase in life brings forth new contentions, and at the moment I have other considerations to take care of. I can only hope that those curiosities that once existed remain strong until I've earned my qualifications to study them and publish material on them. I seriously can't wait for that moment where I've earned my PhD to come... Seems like it's taking forever to get even to the part where I can finally apply, and even then the journey there isn't a smooth one because my grades do not guarantee an easy entry.