Friday, February 18, 2011

“My Life In…”

I met up with a good friend the other day, who had just returned from a trip to China. We spoke about the effect that life in China has on foreigners. She described a family of missionaries who have grown arrogant and condescending towards to Chinese people over the course of years spent living in Beijing.

I know what she meant. I’ve seen this effect amongst the diplomat and corporate families of Beijing, as well as the English teacher population, and it’s not pretty. Even exchange students aren’t immune from it (though it’s manifested more as a type of solipsism). I guess it’s a bit like what a colonialist attitude would have been like. Brendan wrote a good post years ago which mentioned that people in Shunyi would describe a trip to inner Beijing as “going to China”.

It got me thinking, how do different countries affect expatriates in different ways (compare China with, say, Italy)? How do different countries draw different types of people? And obviously you can then try to spot similarities within expatriate communities of whichever country you live in.

What I think happens is that if the expatriate community is sufficiently small, the members start to construct a reality in which they take on roles in some television drama or film. You can often see this in play if you observe the international students at your university cafeteria; the interpersonal dynamics are not real, but modeled and acted out.

In some ways it might be a healthy change from the anomie which affects us when we live in big cities, likely in far larger populations than our brain is equipped to deal with. But it turns ugly when it results in the local population of a country being treated as no more than authentic looking extras in some Hollywood production.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Understanding a Foreign Language

I sometimes get asked what it's like to understand a foreign language.

It just occurred to me that the process is something like listening to familiar music on better and better quality headphones- progressively you hear things that you didn't even know were there before. And then you finally understand the lyrics, and can't quite imagine the time when you didn't understand them.

That's the best way I can describe it.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Way of the Future

Away with printed words. Or at least, words printed with ink on hundreds of pages.

I have a Kindle now, and it is awesome. It looks so much like paper that you will find it hard to believe at first. I thought someone had stuck a piece of paper on the screen at first. And if you read longer titles it will also be lighter to hold, very good for lounging with. In fact, superior to paper-backs for lounging. And it allows you to keep one hand free to...hold a coffee cup, of course.

The selection of Kindle titles is not as complete as I'd like (quality fiction seems most lacking) but this will only get better with time. Browsing titles, thinking "Hey, I'd really like to read that", and then having a copy of the book 5-10 seconds later is an amazing experience. And after, say, 10-15 books it pays for itself. I already bought 12 titles for it...

Anyway, go get one. It's the way of the future. The way of the future.

The way of the future...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Biggest Problem With The Internet

The comments sections in TED videos and the more serious Youtube videos are often full of weirdos. Neurotic, abusive, weirdos. It's probably the biggest problem with the internet. Related to, but separate from, the uncivilized manner in which people interact with each other.

It really makes me wonder, are 90 percent of people in the world like this, with the self-control to retain composure in public? Or does the internet just get filled with the shouting of a vocal minority?

I'm going to be optimistic and say that it's the latter...

Though I often feel it's the former.

The Mistakes Can Help

I've been reviewing mathematics and logic recently, because I'm planning on returning to university next year to study those subjects more. It may seem an odd step, but I personally find it odd that more philosophy students don't get drawn in by maths after they discover most of philosophy to be pretentious douchebags building theories and arguments from mist. But I probably feel this way because the way I was first introduced to philosophy was as a logic student in highschool, so it is perhaps more a return to a first love than anything else.


It strikes me that while answer sections in the back of the books are helpful, it can actually be beneficial for say, 2-3 percent of those answers to be mistakes. It not only keeps you thinking, it's also a reminder of the room for human error, and it also allows you the exhilaration of feeling that you got one up on the author of the textbook.

On a related note, Wolfram Alpha is a great way of settling the debate of whether your answer is right or the textbook's.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Riffing on The 13th Floor v The Matrix

*I assume here, kind reader, that you've at least seen The Matrix, so if you have not...then there may be a spoiler here. I won't spoil any important details for The 13th Floor though as few people have seen it...

So I recently watched The 13th Floor again, since first seeing it probably 10 years ago (I'd heard it mentioned in a brilliant podcast that I listen to). And though I've lost count of the amount of times I've seen The Matrix, the most recent time was probably a few months ago when it was on tv. Both films were released in 1999, by competing film houses, and both explore the concept of virtual worlds. It's interesting to compare how each film has fared now that over a decade has passed.

Surprisingly, even though The Matrix had a budget of 63 million, as opposed to 16 million for The 13th Floor, it's the latter film that has stood the test of time visually. The CGI in The Matrix- which was very ambitious at the time- looks really obvious now, whereas the more subtle effects used in The 13th Floor haven't really dated at all.

Most of the acting in The 13th Floor is better than The Matrix too. Both of the protagonists are computer programmers, though these days the rich, successful Douglas Hall from The 13th Floor seems more realistic than the genius-level-programmer-working-at-mundane-cubicle described by Thomas Anderson in The Matrix. Craig Bierko's classical/musical training shows when you contrast it with Keanu Reeves' monotone. As for supporting roles both films are a mixed bag- Armin Mueller-Stahl (Shine, The Game, Eastern Promises) is wonderful as the brilliant A.I researcher Hannon Fuller, but Dennis Haysbert (the grill chef from Heat) wasn't able to convince in his role as detective McBain.

The thing about the two films though is that The Matrix is really just an awesome action movie with a backdrop that happens to be kind of philosophically interesting. The 13th Floor is more a pure sci-fi film which uses a murder-mystery plot device to keep the story going. As a result, on a scene-by-scene basis The 13th Floor doesn't have anything as memorable as the excellently choreographed fight-scenes and shoot-outs of The Matrix. What The 13th Floor does have though is a series of very interesting question throughout the film- can consciousness emerge digitally? Would we have ethical obligations to digital forms of consciousness? If we talk about levels of reality, then is one more real than the other? How would you know whether you were living in a simulation?

Whereas The Matrix asks the question "could your world be an illusion?" and then proceeds to answer by judo-chopping you in the throat. I like both films plenty, but after revisiting them both I have to say that The 13th Floor is my preferred film when it comes to making me think, and I suspect it'd be the best coffee-shop, hand-waving material as well.

Funnily enough, the closest analogy for the differences between these films that I can think of occured just a year before they were released- I'm talking about when Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line came out in 1998.
Both are war films, but whereas Spielberg's film was more about the visual horror of war, Terry Malick's masterpiece delved deeper into the nature of man.

By the way, whilst I suspect that we might be able to produce photo-realistic graphics that are rendered in real-time within the next 10-20 years, actually having an interface that interacts with your brain in such a way as to convince you that you're in that environment is something I can't see happening for a real long time, as it's more in the real of neuroscience than computer science. And neuroscientists don't seem to enjoy the same speed of progress as computer scientists.

Friday, November 12, 2010

It's Not the Size That Counts...'s how you use it.

It seems like every day I have to read about how China is or is going to be the worlds largest whatever. Largest economy. Largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Largest collection of genius I.Qs. Largest buyer of cars. Largest internet user base. Largest collection of elite university professors. Largest space station. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Firstly, there is just far too much uncertainty in this world for any of these predictions to be reliable. I was just reading about the halting problem the other day (not there, but in Seth Lloyd's book). Likewise here, the only way we'll know what's going to happen is by waiting and seeing. I was watching Working Girl yesterday - great movie by the way- and a running theme through it was corporate takeover by Japanese firms. Yeah. I think Daikyo's had its day.

And yet every day we have to hear some whimpering politician talking about China taking its "rightful place", "ruling the world", that its "China's century". The repetition of these bromides really tries one's patience. Even if I was to put some faith in these predictions, I think to myself, who does this really affect? And what should we make of this?

Well, take things as they already are. China has a much bigger GDP than, say, Norway. It has bigger everything, probably.

But where would you rather be a local citizen? Oslo or Shanghai? I mean born and raised, not the expat lifestyle.

Listening to my Norwegian friends talk about growing up, and comparing it with what my Shanghainese friends tell me, at this stage Oslo sounds like a better choice. It might not be that way in the future- maybe Shanghai will be the envy of the world with regard to quality of life. Norway was very poor in the past. But my point here is that being the biggest really isn't something that would affect my decision in the slightest.