Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fundraising in Extremis

Chen Wenling
Catch of the Day

[日本語訳] [en français]

There are some important projects that need to be up and running starting like yesterday, because they are key to human survival. Unfortunately, they cannot be funded in the usual ways because of the warped nature of market economics and global finance, which dictates that the only goal of investing money is to make more money. The project of averting disastrous outcomes is not a money-maker, per se, and does not get funded. But shipping in millions of plastic orange Halloween pumpkins from China every year is a sure bet, and so the free market prioritizes orange plastic pumpkins above doing what is essential to keep us all alive. The invisible hand of the free market, it turns out, is attached to an invisible idiot.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Strange Logic of Dreams

Maria Rubinke
Previously I have raised the question of why it is that, given compelling evidence that action is needed, we fail to act. Are we smarter than yeast? Perhaps not. But perhaps the problem is not with our inability to act but, more importantly, with our inability to think. We pay lip service to the power of reason, but by and large we choose to inhabit a fictional realm where we use abstract symbols to point at invisible objects, which we assign to one in the same realm of consciousness. Could it be that each of us inhabits, at the very least, a separate realm of consciousness, and, more radically, many different realms, in effect dreaming several different dreams, never fully waking up from any of them?

Sigmund Freud conveyed the strange logic of dreams with the following joke:

  1. I never borrowed a kettle from you
  2. I returned it to you unbroken
  3. It was already broken when I borrowed it from you.

This “enumeration of inconsistent arguments,” writes Slavoj Žižek in his Violence, “confirms by negation what it endeavors to deny—that I returned your kettle broken.”

Here is an entirely commonplace example: the canonic list of excuses made by a child who neglected to do her homework:

1. I lost it
2. My dog ate it
3. I didn't know it was assigned

A similar triad of counterfactuals seems to recur in many long-running, seemingly insoluble political conflicts. Each counterfactual inhabits a fictional realm of its own (it can be true only in its own parallel universe). The effect of the three disjoint statements taken together is to form a cognitive wedge, which blocks all further rational thought.

Here, for example, is how Žižek casts the way radical Islamists respond to the Holocaust:

  1. The Holocaust did not happen
  2. It did happen, but the Jews deserved it
  3. The Jews did not deserve it, but they have lost the right to complain by doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to them

On the other side of the great Arab-Israeli divide, we have a similar triad

  1. There is no God (Israelis are by and large atheists)
  2. We are God's chosen people; God gave Palestine to us
  3. Palestine is ours simply because centuries ago we used to lived there

Please note that I am not bringing this matter up to weigh in on the conflict, but to point out what makes it insoluble: both sides are dreaming not one but several contradictory dreams. No reconciliation is possible unless they awaken, but if they do they will have to abandon their strategic dream-positions and lose any standing they may have had to engage in negotiation. Some day they will awaken, not having noticed when the movie had ended, and their world will be gone.

Closer to home, last year, we were treated to the wonderful spectacle of Occupy Wall Street, with its incoherent “demands” and a lively cacophony of voices. The occupiers demonstrated quite forcefully that they exist, and that they stand apart. It was not a political revolt, but an ontological one: “we are not you.” Thus, making specific demands would have been superfluous. The occupiers could have achieved the same (perhaps even a greater) effect by chanting something rhythmic yet free of meaning:

Blah! Blah! Blah-blah-blah!
Blah! Blah! Blah-blah-blah!

In response, the political chattering classes spewed forth the following triad:

  1. The Occupiers lack specific demands
  2. The Occupiers' demands are unreasonable
  3. Meeting the Occupiers' demands would not solve the problem

They were asleep, you see, and dreaming of an occupation. Some day they will awaken, not having noticed when the movie had ended, and their world will be gone.

In the meantime, sweet dreams to you all!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Solo Sail Around the Americas

[Update: He won. First ever non-stop single-handed circumnavigation of the Americas. 27,077 nautical miles in 309 days, 18 hours and 38 minutes.]

In case you didn't know... Matt Rutherford is about to complete a first ever solo non-stop circumnavigation of the Americas aboard a donated 27-foot Albin-Vega. It took him about a year to get up north, navigate the Northern Passage, sail down the Pacific coast, across Cape Horn, and back up the Atlantic coast. His arrival back in Annapolis is scheduled for April 21st.