Monday, November 28, 2011

As We Wade Through a Morass of Modernity

As is his wont, a friend once surprised me with a most mundane remark and not before long induced from it an intuitive and practical generalization, which he put forward in a reasonably eloquent manner.

Some of his work colleagues, he recently discovered, read books! Ergo, he continued, each human being has limited mental resources that are either squandered on frivolous acts, such as gossiping and the likes, or harnessed effectively to climb the career ladder at rapid rates. Regardless of the narrow and compartmentalizing context in which he decided to express his generalization, a thing I still find to be interesting in its own right, it is hard to fully disagree.
But not a one to miss out on any chance to conduct an irony, life, as if sentient, led both of us later through a chain of germane antecedents to contend over the value of a certain TED video. At one end, the talk was highly applauded, while on the other it was dismissed as a derivative oratory, based on unfounded claims and propped by weak arguments of the much more solid work of Jim Collins et al. When the latter position was adequately substantiated, my friend, trying to secure a draw, retorted that I still can't deny the educative value of TED Talks as a whole. To his dismay, I disagreed, but not in the categorical sense of the word.
TED’s philosophy of unfolding the principles underling a given technology in a simple and endearing way is entertaining at its climax, benign at worst. But substitute abstract ideas and success stories for technologies, and the platform starts pandering, more often than not, to the educative morality of oversimplification and entertaining; alas, ubiquitous in our days, when it should be loathed for the mental obtuseness it encourages. - I find this moment most appropriate to point out that the matter at hand is much more deeper and trickier than it might have sounded thus far, or at least this is how I feel. At any rate, I find it only behooving to approach the crux deviously, while keeping my fingers crossed that the path I chose will depict a sufficiently alarming portion of the real problem.
Historically, the notion of educating the masses can be traced back to the Enlightenment period, as intellectuals back then had unwavering faith in the emancipating capacities of logic and, by extension, thinking. But perhaps they simultaneously held that issuing from the arms of serfdom must be the concerned individual’s effort only. As such, access to all sorts of knowledge was made as easy as it could be, but it was regarded as solely the less privileged job to come to grips with tomes of inscrutable nature, on the premise that liberty is most appreciated when it is hard-earned. Alternatively, it could be that scholars of the time were still too overawed by their perceived sanctity of knowledge to have had "peddled it". Either way, the ideals were too quixotic to have yielded any fruits or any immediate general ones at least.
Humanity would have to wait until the first twenty years of the previous century had passed for the first successful movement of knowledge humanization to take place, starting in the Anglo-American world. – There might be similar successful movements anterior to this one, but the purpose here is not writing history proper, or drawing on its authority, rather the historical context is meant to serve the function of a backbone to the argument. – Professors would finally deign, or knuckle under the economic pressures of the period, to write in intelligible manner. Yet the readers were still expected to exert some mental effort and meet the writer somewhere along the way, even if it was the writer who covered the longest distance to this meeting point.
Thus a profusion of books that try to recapitulate vast branches of knowledge or systems of thought poured (e.g. the now classic H. G. Wells' "The Outline of History"). Professors were only too aware of the inevitability of errors in any account written in a synoptic vein, which led many of them to criticize the project from early on. But some maintained the arguably tenable argument that dividends were being repaid in whetting the average intellect of the public and in nurturing their faculty for criticism and discerning, viz., far from reinforcing parochial penchants with scholasticism, the purpose of education is to liberate people from such tendencies; hence the term "Liberal Education".
However, this form began falling out of fashion toward the end of the thirties, which might be a corollary of its very success, for after all a secular project’s ultimate achievement is attained in rendering itself obsolete. The respective trends from this point onward are harder to demarcate with precision, for any number of reasons, but generally speaking, knowledge was no longer the rarefied domain of experts, in more than just one way.
One aspect of this was most clearly exemplified in the counterculture of the 60s and the subsequent cultural wars, which at the educational level yielded a long list of concessions from the side of universities, the most triumphal of which was introducing studies that had been scandalously suppressed until those times (e.g. studies of gender, equity, environment, cultures... et cetera). That makes this period's enduring contribution to humanity, aside from evincing what kind of effects a liberal education can have on the masses, a new realization of the term humanization of knowledge.
In juxtaposition with this cursory historical tour, our time seems to be extremely dichotomous. Radical scrutinized educative initiatives and open access high quality knowledge dissemination projects are proliferating ceaselessly (e.g. the OpenCourseWare concept, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Cornell's CyberTower and if I am allowed to add something from outside the cyber realm, the extremely affordable Very Short Introduction series by Oxford, to name only a few), carrying through the trend of bridging the chasm between the academic and the public spheres. 
In parallel, education seems to be constantly degenerating in the minds of the public to nothing more than a set of trivially simplified formulas for success, which is reflected in how enamored they are becoming with quotes, and which is, the success that is, being narrowly associated with the amelioration of economic status. But if we suppose that “something” used to prick the conscience of people from time to time in the past, prodding them to grab a worthy book and read it, halting this degeneration as result, could it be that the contemporary unprecedented flow of information we are exposed to is masquerading as education, and in the process neutralizing this “something”?
If so, a litmus test might be needed then. Could this be that true education is never a thing done in passing, or as an activity of a primary entertaining value, but is rather hard and time consuming, albeit rewarding and elating in the end? Fogyish, if you'd like, but definitely on the right track.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Relativity is Intact, Our Pride is in Jeopardy

Few Fridays ago, early in the morning, I received an SMS from my science apotheosizing dear friend, conveying news to the effect that the light speed barrier was shattered at the CERN. That was very interesting, but insufficient; was it, at a more precise level, the discovery of a superluminal particle, or accelerating a particle across the infamous "c" threshold? A little bit later I learned it was a possibility of the former and not the latter.

That does not defy Relativity. Yet most of the articles I read, written on popular news sites, in a most critical time to the understanding of the public, were claiming the nullifying of Einstein's theory in case the reported results were corroborated. So much for science journalism due diligence and responsibility.

The theory of Relativity does not strictly impose an upper speed limit on motion. It sets, however, a speed barrier that is not allowed to be crossed by particles with velocities on either of its sides. This means that a particle found to be always traveling at speeds higher than that of light is not, according to the theory, allowed to slow down to speeds lower than the speed of light, and vice versa.

Actually the tachyon was conceptually born as soon as Special Relativity's foundations were laid, as a theoretically predicted class of particles that might be found to exhibit superluminal velocities. But it was quickly and deliberately pushed under the table of scientific discourse because of the dilemma such particles pose for the very foundations of human consciousness, for they break away with causality. Such tenuous grounds for dismissal. But things, it seems, can get political even in physics.

To eschew the abstruse nature of proper technical language, and to express this in a more intelligible and exciting manner, superluminal particles open the possibility, at least in theory, for communications across time. An example that gets the point across effectively, even though it might not be fully sound in concept, would be downloading a file using the internet using faster than light signals. You hit "download" at this precise moment, and you got the file downloaded few hours ago. Reading this, any human being should hit a mental impasse.

What temporal standpoint should we adopt as our departure point in internalizing what happened? The second when we clicked on "download"? Or the past, when the file was already downloaded? Either way we will never comprehend such a reality. Why should I download a file when all out of a sudden I had it on my computer, brushing aside the concomitant astonishment? Yet according to the theory of concern here, you will do just that, like it or not, as under its laws the totality of reality is absolutely invariant, regardless of how you observe it. This gives you a hint about the basic motivation behind Physic's, may be partial, relinquishment of its child tachyon little after it was born.

Even though this denial of conclusions belies the spirit of discovery, that which fuels the endeavor of natural sciences, it is, by and large, expected. Modern science wise, we are only coming of age. Still dumbfounded by how it had radicalized our understanding of the universe in such a short period of time, and made too clumsy by our lack of wisdom and humility to handle with sufficient care the precarious hope it promises of furthering this comprehension. Fortunately though, the much older and wiser philosophy is there for our counsel and guidance.

A very satisfactory explanation of the aforementioned impasse was discussed some 250 years ago. A philosopher called Kant - personally, he is one intellectual I grit my teeth on the thought that I can't read any of his treatise in their original language of German - proposing to transcend the irreconcilability of two ajar schools of thought, stated reality as completely independent from the human consciousness. From that point, he proceeds to describe a set of what is known in philosophy's parlance as a prior concepts of knowledge, which, according to Kant, are inescapably inherent in the structure of the human mind.

These a prior concepts are to our cerebration, more or less, what breathing is to our existence; both are subliminal, but essential to their relative processes. It is less than often that their existence crosses the threshold of our consciousness yet we can't conceive of a meaningful sentence that does not imply a sense of time and place, or the space and time a prior. Just as much, we can't construct even the most simple of construable statements without embedding into them some form of cause and effect, generally expressed through a subject and an object. This we call the causality a prior, and it is what pertains the most of these a prior concepts to the scope of this article.

Facing a reality where an effect precedes a cause, and Kant would nod on this, humans are somewhat like a cat in front of a highly sophisticated contraption. The cat gazes hard at the weird device trying to tease out a mate, a shelter, a predator, a prey, or a rolling ball of twine. Other higher aspects or functions of the mechanism are of no interest to the cat, simply because for it they don't exist.

But that is more indicative of the cat's inferiority than being a derogation to the splendors of reality, das ding an sich.

[Update: March, 16, 2012, a CERN press release reported that another experiment on a set of neutrinos found them to be travelling at speeds consistent with that of light. Almost a month before, a press release indicated the possibility that the superluminal speeds announced last September had originated in a couple of faulty components in the detector setup. However, with the testimonies of more than four experiments, the adjudication is expected to be heard this coming May.]

[Update: June, 11, 2012, the latest CERN press release on the issue put an end to all speculations by announcing that the results of last September were due to a technical problem in the setup]

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Type of Honor Crimes That Goes Unreported

There is a subtler aspect of our Jordanian notion of honor, through which it proves yet another time how distorted it is, and through which also, and most importantly, it seems to be seeking an extension in its operating brief to include fraying the very fabric of the society itself beyond that which it is most notorious for; namely, wrecking havoc on personal and familial spheres.

It seems that gender based susceptibility to "desecrating one's own family's honor" is not the only bias. Faith, apparently, is also a major deciding factor in how prone a person is to committing such "desecrating conducts" as well as how much they can be "insensitive to them". This aspect revealed itself clearly, and in its most abhorrent form, when I heard some saying things like "she is feigning chastity when she is a [Christian surname]? She is a Christian!". In other cases I heard some recasting this, which seems to stand as an invariable fact in these ignorant heads, in the less pungent terms of personal liberty, terms, nevertheless, that are still suffused with negative connotations for the vast majority of Jordanians.

I perceive this to be an undercurrent flowing in the society, and not merely a few isolated cases. From hearing women correlating bare shoulders with an increased probability in the girl "flaunting" them being a Christine, to a school teacher whom I vividly recall describing the mixed sex Church organized Christian youth excursions as orgy parties, never mind the fact that he was lecturing a coed class, to some other related incidents the frequency of which precludes anomaly as an explanation, I think calling this an undercurrent is justified.

This does not imply an impending religious strife in Jordan, for none exists, or looms in the horizon for that matter, nor does it negate the state of our society as an epitome of coexistence. But this is to spotlight an unfavorable tendency that might amount from its current latent state to become a generator of some sort of unrest when the social structures shift in favor of a malignant fissiparousness, and there is much to learn from the contemporary history of Mount Lebanon in this regard.

Numerous sects and faiths had abutted harmoniously on the slopes of this mountain for many centuries, but all of this was set asunder overnight as a ferocious civil war ensued. A chance, it is likely, had presented itself for some pernicious undercurrents to surface and intensify, and history took a violent course, regardless of how peaceful it was hitherto. This is not limited to Lebanon. Such patterns can be discerned to varying degrees wherever you look at in history, with a rate of recurrence that tempts one to view peaceful periods as nothing more than times when conflicts are simply not feasible. But despite the stench of nihilism that this view reeks of, I believe it goads us to work as hard as we can on quashing any such undercurrents and tendencies when we are allotted the time and chance to.

On another level I also reckon that the tendency to debase the different other, who shares the same space in a given context, using the most circulated social currency of value, this being honor in Jordan, is a universal phenomenon. It might be a consequence of a default reflection that we are born with as humans, acquiring its content as we grow, and it seems that our society constantly fails at educating or eliminating it. On a second thought, it is nurtured and heavily drawn upon in the construction of other biases. In times of growing hostility against Iran in Jordan, for instance, you are likely to come across someone falsely, yet boldly claiming that for a Shi'ite it is of a great honor to give any of his female relatives as a concubine for a visiting Mullah.

There is also another rich and telling fold in all of this. In a conservative society where any form of sexual expression is heavily repressed, save for inadequate few, people will still find ways to go around such circumscriptions, and do so by means that are detrimental to the well-being of the society. Contempt of the different becomes prurient, and the hatred and violence it begets will be all the more so, if allowed the needed space to grow. The aforementioned teacher description is obviously an interplay of hidden desires and a rooted false sense of the inferiority of a certain other. If not rooted, then at least it came in handy for a convoluted and mischievous expression or venting of fantasies. Ironically, this repression purports, brazenly, to be protecting us from the decadence it induces in the first place.

Personally, I think that any effective way to obviate the unfriendly consequences that this social phenomenon might surprise Jordan with in the future, should incorporate putting an end to many of the social sensibilities, which are besetting any action aiming at social change; just like a field of mines, each waiting to be stepped on, no matter how lightly, to explode and cripple the efforts. In this particular case, this may translate to discussing such aspects of our society openly, and introducing courses and classes that provide a neutral point of view on the different cultural constituents of it, away from the ones threatening, with a god's raging fire, those who don't abide by their notions. This is directed to Jordanians from all stripes without discriminating.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Don't Listen to Mama! Be an Iconoclast!

In what seems like a pleasant coincidence, I recently stumbled upon a rare remark made by Edward Said on the American culture, where he laments its "moralization of reductiveness".

And while Said's particular concerns revolve around a certain manifestation of this American penchant, namely what he calls "formulas of what not to do and read and what to consider culture and what not", I will be using it as a starting point for voicing another more general concern, in which the American society is but another society, albeit a one in which the symptoms are more apparent; the human tendency to seek an understanding of what is going on around.

One might be wondering, understandably, what can be of concern here. That will be got into in a bit, but at this point it is most appropriate to introduce the two concepts of Confirmation Bias (which belongs to a larger family of biases termed Cognitive Biases) and Cognitive Dissonance (attentive attendees of TedxRamallah should be familiar with both terms). The former describes the human tendency to seek what affirms one's narratives and views on life, and to ignore what does not, while the latter refers to a feeling of pain caused by holding contradicting ideas in the mind at the same moment.

By the mere act of evocation, a connection between the two phenomena is established, which is best viewed within an evolutionary framework. The human brain, it has been frequently shown, is more of a haphazard collection of heuristics and biases selected for optimal operation in a Savannah like environment, than a centralized logical inference machine designed to deal with the contemporary sweeping pour of data and information insulting its sensory receptors. From this chaotic brain constitution, what had been previously called a natural affinity for narrative construction arises.

The brain handles this aforementioned besiegement by the flux of information through constructing narratives (generalizations and chains of causality, which are not necessarily true), assessing these information against its own narratives, neglecting what do not get along (Confirmation Bias), but if the contradiction was intractable by means of ignoring, then Cognitive Dissonance ensues until the narrative is amended to accommodate or resolve the conflict.

This is a very simplified explanation of how a human brain perceives the world around it, but a one from which serious consequences flow. Most of the time what we perceive as reality is nothing more than a way for our brains to sift through and be able to retain select parts of the world external to the senses.

That said, it does not mean that our understanding of the globe is flawed beyond redemption, but rather that we should always be critical of our own views and narratives as much as we can, challenging them on every possible occasion presented, reviewing our collective and personal pasts constantly and never committing ourselves to any idea or ideology, let alone venerating.

Failing to do so, history has taught us by countless examples, is a menace, and no where this menace is capable of reaching devastating potentials than through the political agency and its sphere, both of which, alas, have been resting on nonsensical commitments and the emotional mobilization of masses ever since the first polis was formed!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Sowing the Seeds of Pluralism in Jordan

Among the various voices I came across about the preparedness, or lack of it, of Jordan to join the league of democratic nations, there was this one somewhat valid opinion, which claims that Jordanians should first learn how to be democratic before asking for democracy.

Propounding a solution in such an abstract and condescending form is not good enough; one can expect more, and I find the use of “learn” unsuitable, if not absurd, in such a context. It can spur a lengthy debate over the nature of democracy:

How can a person learn to be democratic? Is the idea of teachable democracy principles valid and compatible with the notion of freedom? If yes, does the awareness of such principles lead, inevitably, to practicing democracy? If these principles exist, are they particular or universal?...

We can ask many more questions, but let’s stop here. The point is that the idea of teaching democracy needs to address some serious shortcomings and caveats in its logical structure before it can be taken seriously as a solution for its supporters’ initial concern about Jordan. Nevertheless, I reckon that the idea of satisfying certain prerequisites before democracy can sprout in Jordan, was failed and buried deep down within this view by an improper use of words.

I will take this idea one step further, add to it a bit and say that the appreciation for pluralism is what matters, and not democracy, for the latter is a mere application of the former to the political realm, or at least, to some extent. But the road to appreciating the plural can be quite tricky, especially in a region where demonizing the other had been sanctioned and practiced for centenaries, and is still being, though at escalated rates.

There is something else that worries me in this regard. We have a lot of work to do in order to catch up with the rest of the world on too many levels (e.g. economic, technological…etc), and I am afraid that this will somehow lead us to downplay the importance of other human endeavors (e.g. arts) noncontributing to this materialistic growth, but which are nevertheless needed for a proper social change and growth.

One also have to consider the Jordanian system of education which segregates science, literature and arts, feeding in the process an already existing tendency in the society to stigmatize anyone with a literary bent, and producing graduates holding degrees in philistinism and parochial thinking! A setback, if you consider the high quality education provided by the schools of the Levant during the late nineteenth century.

There are reasons to show some optimism, still. Any keen observer of the Ammani scene must have noticed the recent increase in the number of organized forums and events springing around (or may be their presence was brought to our awareness through the “power” of social media?) which target the layman in a multitude of topics. Technology related events attract the largest audience, even though I doubt the heterogeneity of the attendees’ backgrounds. Science, philosophy and arts events, on the other hand, attract meager audiences, who are highly homogeneous in their interests as well.

Hence a logical next step would be holding forums and events with pluralistic themes, where art intermingles with science, and philosophers perplex technologists with their impenetrable questions. If this could not provide a good starting point for nurturing and sustaining an appreciation for pluralism within the society, it might attract more tourists, at least!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Review of Bookshops in Amman

I reckon that guides or reviews are swayed by the biases and preferences of those who write them, and this one is no exception. However, you have my word that I tried the best I could to keep the subjectivity to a minimum.

The review will be exclusive to the bookshops I frequent the most (once every 2 or 3 weeks), which means that my assessment is based on first hand experience, and nothing that I heard of or a friend told me.

The scale of assessment will be relative; that is the order is descending from the one that measures the highest (leftmost) in any given category. Inside brackets, the quality is comparable regardless of the order. If I drop the name of a bookshop in a certain comparison category, then simply it means I don't have adequate experience to judge it in that regard. So here goes nothing:

Topics [Diversity]: (Virgin Megastore, Readers), (Books@cafe, Prime), The Good Bookshop, Titles
Topics [Classics]: Virgin, (Readers, Prime), Books@cafe, The Good Bookshop, Titles
Topics [Controversiality]: Virgin, (Books@cafe, Prime), Readers, (The Good Bookshop, Titles)

Staff [Amicability]: Titles, Virgin, (Books@cafe, The Good Bookshop, Prime), Readers

Staff [Helpfulness]: Titles, Virgin, (Prime, Books@cafe, The Good Bookshop, Readers)
Search-ability: Books@cafe* (Readers, Prime, Virgin), Titles, The Good Bookshop
Shelves Renewal Rate: Virgin,... (Readers, Prime), (The Good Bookshop, Titles)

*Using their online catalogue, on the premise that it is always up-to-date, a thing I can't tell for granted.

[Update: in case you were wondering about the contact details of any of these bookshops see this link]
[Update 2: Prime is defunct]
[Update 3: Virgin Megastore sells French books, albeit in scant quantities]