Friday, December 31, 2010

THE TOWER OF BABEL


I quite often hear it said that, to reach the truth, what we need is a skeptical mind, or, as Dr. Judy Wood puts it (in relation to the 9/11 event), to "question everything and everyone." 

On the face of it this might seem a sensible way of arriving at the truth, but on closer inspection I fear it's just as divorced from reality as that other pithy little apothegm, “‘Assume’ makes an ass out of you and me” (because everything, when you come right down to it, is an assumption). Paul Craig Roberts seems to have a better handle on things when he writes

The notion that "we are not afraid to follow the truth wherever it may lead" is an extremely romantic and idealistic notion. I have seldom experienced open minds even in academic discourse or in the highest levels of government. Among the public at large, the ability to follow the truth wherever it may lead is almost non-existent. (“Why Propaganda Trumps Truth”, Sep 15, 2009, Information Clearing House)

Nevertheless – and with apologies to Paul Craig Roberts, whom I greatly respect and admire – I suspect that even this statement contains within it the belief that following the truth “wherever it may lead” is at least possible.

If you, dear reader, are also a member of the public at large, then it should come as a relief to you to learn that it is not, actually, possible either to question everything, or to follow the truth wherever it may lead. Reality simply isn’t set up like that. We can certainly expand our store of knowledge by (somehow) expanding our sphere of interest, but interest is the necessary starting point of all inquiry, and interest always implies selection. Selection, of course, means narrowing our field of inquiry. If we were to question everything then we’d have to be interested in everything, and we’d settle on nothing. Our field of inquiry must on the one hand begin with some premises – some foundational assumptions which guide our search for “truth” - and on the other hand be limited to what we consider interesting. It’s interest that drives the whole thing. Without interest we’re not going to look at anything at all. 

Another scientist, Stephen Jones, (also referring to 9/11) says,

"it is an 'unscientific method' when one starts with a conclusion and then finds just those facts that support that conclusion while ignoring everything else."

Yes, we’ve all heard about “cherry picking” the data, but again, he can’t mean everything else, because that would imply that there was no selection process needed in a study of the “facts” – they would all, supposedly, be equally relevant. But data is always cherry-picked! All we mean by that term is that the other guy has selected data by a different set of biases from ours! 

I suspect that the cause of this general misapprehension – that to reach the truth all we have to do is to “keep an open mind” and “look at everything” - is an excessive faith in the power of these wretched, so-called “facts”. Almost everyone these days seems to think that “facts” are in some concrete sense “out there”, like fruit waiting to be plucked, and that all you’ve got to do is step outside your front door, reach up and there they are, ready for the taking. Nice, round, plump, juicy facts.

Oh, you thought that too, did you? Well, not to wake you too rudely from your slumbers, but no, it ain’t like that. It ain’t like that at all.

The quality of a fact, any fact, depends on what you believe. You are the arbiter of your truth. And therein lies both our difficulty and the source of our belief that the facts are “out there”. The tapestry of experience is infinite. No two people share exactly the same interests, stand in exactly the same position at the same moment, have exactly the same background, age, education, training, susceptibilities, phobias, allergies, hobbies, talents, skills, tastes, physical strength, weight, height, EQ, IQ, prejudices… I could go on and on. All these differences add up to – surprise, surprise - an often radically different selection of “facts” from the infinite ground of all being. To see all the “facts” is not only impossible, it’s meaningless. Meaning involves selection and ordering of mental contents on the basis of pre-established values. Our beliefs tell us what “facts” to look for. We then see what we believe. If you like, we tell the “facts” what to say. They do not “speak for themselves”.

In The Voyage of the Beagle Charles Darwin describes how the Tierra del Fuegians, naked savages who had never before set eyes on either white men or sailing ships, swarmed over the Beagle, consumed with curiosity over any object small enough to hold in their hands, but apparently oblivious to the ship itself, which was altogether beyond their comprehension. Robert Hughes describes something very similar in The Fatal Shore, his epic tale of the founding of Australia. Of the first encounter between white men and Australian aboriginals on April 29,1770, he writes that the crew aboard the Endeavour

… saw bark canoes, and in them blacks were fishing. The ship floated past these frail coracles. It was the largest artifact ever seen on the east coast of Australia, an object so huge, complex and unfamiliar as to defy the natives’ understanding… the Australians took no notice. They displayed neither fear nor interest and went on fishing. (The Fatal Shore, p. 53. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1987)

Do we ourselves comprehend the significance of this? An entire sailing ship, 106 feet long, escapes the notice of fishermen past whom it sails at very close range. They do not see it.

What holds a society together is the values that its members share. Without this “conspiracy” to agree on what’s out there, no communication whatever would be possible. Only through the agency of those values we agree to share can we enjoy a mutually coherent world. There is, then, an intimate connection between “the truth” and the group. Similarly, what we call the objectivity of science is embedded in a matrix of such shared values, apart from which its constructs could not exist. Facts, my friends, are agreements about what constitutes reality. And isolation in science is as fatal as isolation in society. To prosper an idea must be communicated – that is to say, agreed on. Without such agreements communication between the members of the group would be utterly and completely impossible. There would be no group; no society.

But to get from what I believe to what we believe requires a tremendous, indeed an incessant, often bloody struggle. Somehow – by hook or by crook – people have to be persuaded, seduced, cajoled, bullied, tortured, coerced, and generally made to believe the same thing, if a society is to prosper. In its most benign form this process is called “education”. Obviously the resulting world view can only be a myth. Yet the myth is taken for reality, and the true source of reality – the individual, in whom all experience resides – is only considered sane to the extent that he conforms to this myth which he has by hook or by crook been persuaded to agree to.

No man is an island. We are deeply and irrevocably communal, but there is a more-or-less constant tension between what I think and what the group thinks – the reality of the individual versus the agreed fiction of the group. Failure to communicate our beliefs is extremely frustrating. Failure to agree (agreement being what communication is) leads us immediately to anger, then rage. And rage leads to name-calling, and blows. Other people are "crazy", “wingnuts", "retarded" when they refuse to see the world as we see it – whether we're wearing our religious hat, our social hat, or our scientific hat. If ours is the majority view then we feel the strength of the herd behind us, and our righteous indignation can be very insistent indeed. When two such groups clash – oh boy! The clash between the 9/11 Truth Movement and the debunkers is little different in this respect to that between Sunnis and Shiites, or Israelis and Palestinians. Indeed, the feeling of personal righteousness on both sides is identical. Each side claims “objectivity”, each side claims to be in possession of “the facts”. Each side sees the other as stupid, or willfully ignorant, or in league with evil, for failing to agree with their myth. And this state of affairs is what we call “spreading the truth”.

“Authority” is the term we use to describe any agency that creates and maintains agreement. I shall attempt another blog post on that, but for now let’s just say that authority takes as many forms as are required to perform this function, and that in most societies authority – that which ensures that our behavior, where necessary, conforms with that of others – is pretty much all-pervasive. Consequently the activity of thinking for ourselves and questioning “everything” is a highly circumscribed endeavor. We are, like it or not, creatures of our culture.

Lacking the unifying influence of authority (in whatever form) there would be as many interpretations of reality – of “facts” – as there are people on the planet. If each of us, independently and always, in complete defiance of our social nature, questioned everything, we would be perpetually alone. If, as seekers after “the truth”, everyone went his own way and had his own theories about the world without reference to anyone else, nothing that we now share would ever have been built, or, being already built, now remain standing. We would be completely dissociated; without language; without thought. No-one could communicate with anyone else (or deem it worthwhile to attempt to do so). Instead we would have built ourselves, in effect, a Tower of Babel.

Friday, December 24, 2010

FACT and FAITH


It’s our particular cultural prejudice to believe in the permanence of ‘facts’. Facts, we say, are what is real. Facts, we aver, are ‘out there’, concrete, dependable.
But facts are not quite the hard and fast things we think they are. No-one, surely, disputes that we all see ‘the facts’ at least slightly differently. What we do dispute – constantly - is other people’s right to do so.

For societies to function there has to be agreement on what the facts are, or at least those facts that hold us together, and that’s where we exchange one problem (that we all tend to see the world differently) for another: to communicate at all, we have to agree – so whose facts are we to adopt?

Until very recently that question was answered by the received wisdom of ritual and the twin authorities of tradition and religion, all imposed by parents, teachers, officers of the law, and the priesthood. These authorities, however, have seen a steady erosion of their cohesive power with the advance of science, which, with its insistence on ‘objectivity’, has declared such sources of knowledge and forces of social control ‘irrational’. Science deals with facts. Scientific facts are objective, dependable. Traditional authority is not science-based, but belief-based, and subjective, hence unreliable.

But here’s the problem, and it’s a huge one: if we allow that the objective world of science is what is real, then the subjective realm becomes subordinate to the objective, and belief becomes merely a matter of taste. Science is then presumed to govern ‘rational’ behavior, and, with the rug pulled from under all our beliefs, we are reduced to the dictates of what is merely efficient. Such a transformation of society is happening right now, and even as we are rapidly losing our birthright we have the feeling that we no longer have a moral leg to stand on. To the extent that we now believe ourselves to inhabit an objective world we are relegating ourselves to moral paralysis.

The fact – in the sense of the logic of the situation – is this: you cannot derive morality from the objective world. Morality is values, and values, categorically, are outside the province of science. Without morality – values – no meaning can be extracted from sense data. The meaning of the term ‘the President of the United States of America’ is not objectively determinable. Pure science cannot even discriminate between the respective values of babies and bathwater. These determinations reside in us, and in us alone.

There is, then, no objective way to choose, from among different ways of seeing the world, the one that is ‘real’, since what is real cannot be separated from who is experiencing it, and where. In fact, objectively speaking, there’s no way to choose between one thing and another, ever. Different cultures are not just fanciful ways of seeing what is supposedly a ‘flat’, value-free, objective world. No, they constitute different, agreed realities that have been painfully hammered out over generations, eons, to explain and handle the world we live in.

Each cultural reality is valid on its own terms. Each is good – a word about which science has nothing to say whatever. And so it is that we all claim our own and our group’s view is the best, and hence the most real, not because it’s objective but, on the contrary, because that is exactly how it feels. In the past we simply justified this feeling of rightness by declaring that ‘God is on our side’. Today we justify that same sense of superiority by saying ‘science is on our side’ – without realizing that our precious doctrine of objectivity undercuts everything, including us.

But if we abandon this dangerous doctrine aren’t we then saying that there isn’t anything ‘out there’; that we’re simply making it all up?

Not in the sense of imagining it, no. There is an encounter with data, but the data cannot be distinguished apart from our experience of them – the two are one. We infer the existence of a world, and of ourselves, from this ever present stream of experience – a continuous process of creation occurring in us, forever in the present moment. Out of this we build up theories to explain our experience. Some of these theories stand the test of time. These are what come to be known as ‘facts’. Nevertheless, they remain theories, and about what is the real nature of the world apart from these theories we all of us must remain, forever, in the dark. Belief in ‘objective facts’ helps us in this scientific age to dispel the discomfort of this unknowing, as belief in the fact of the Devil, God and an afterlife did for previous generations.

Facts, then, are not to be considered permanent, objective structures. They are more or less fluid theories which evolve as necessity dictates. A Congolese Pygmy does not have to be a physicist to respond appropriately to gravity. He has a name for the bend in the river on which he lives, but he has no name for the river, nor needs one. He has (let’s say) a dozen necessary words for rain, but no word for snow, which lies outside his experience. For him, even more literally than for Mr. Thomas Friedman, the world is flat.

Note, what lies outside the Pygmy’s (and Mr. Friedman’s) experience has no value for him, and what has no value for him does not exist. This is extremely important for us to grasp, hypnotized as we are by the doctrine of factual objectivity (grin).
We may, from our perspective, think him (the Pygmy that is – but also perhaps Mr. Friedman) an ignorant savage, but his knowledge is sufficient to his life. You or I would perish in his situation, whereas the Pygmy thrives – as does Mr. Friedman. His interpretation of the world – the ‘facts’ which have value for him – his values, in fact – are all-of-a-piece with his environment. To that extent he is free. To that extent his interpretation of his world is truthful; and, for him, utterly factual.

But as soon as he comes into contact with people who can fly – or even just have guns - then he had better start evolving some workable theories about the larger world, or, as sure as battery chickens live in coops, he will become their slave.

Unnecessary knowledge is pedantry, but appropriate knowledge is power. Conversely, ignorance of what is appropriate is slavery – the opposite of freedom.
We in the West pride ourselves, as I say, on our ‘objectivity’. Since each of us can only believe that our own view is best, this leads us to believe that our doctrine of objectivity is the proper, the correct, the universal world view. But the cultural realities that hold Western societies together are as value-based and resistant to interference as those of Congolese Pygmies. Our command of ‘facts’ in the past mostly evolved, like that of Pygmies, through trial and error in response to our particular physical and biological circumstances. But we now and increasingly appoint specialists, duly certified by our trusted academia, to act as intermediaries between us and our environment, in every important field. Why? Because, unlike the Pygmies, our societies have grown so complicated that no-one can comprehend more than a small fraction of everything needed to run them. In the past people turned to the authority of the Church to eradicate uncertainty. Today we live in secular societies, and have put our faith in science, so we employ scientific authorities instead. But the level of faith required by us is precisely the same. We trust, implicitly, all the key figures in whom we have invested authority. We have, in a word, faith in the system, and the ‘facts’ which it supplies. We have to! We couldn’t survive without it!

And it is through these authorities, wedged between us and direct experience, that we claim objectivity! Through the mediation of experts we claim we have command of the ‘facts’ as never before! Such faith!
As of old, our faith in our system amounts, almost, to a religion. To go against established authority in any culture is to act treasonously. To go radically against the Establishment used to be called heresy, but of course this term is not psychologically respectable today, so to ‘objectify’ our rejection of deviant belief we would nowadays call it ‘delusional’. Our immediate – and extremely common - reaction to ideas which differ from our own is to pronounce those who hold them ‘mad’, where previously we would simply have branded them as ‘heretics’. The methods are as identical as the results: the erasure of other people's troublesome theories.

If an authority in a given field says that such-and-such is the case, then – unless we’re prepared to do an enormous amount of research, and then face tremendous opposition from all we try to persuade – we will accept that as the truth. And in just this way our store of ‘facts’ – the knowledge of the world we share with our group – is enlarged.

In a traditional society, knowledge (not to be confused with gossip) comes mostly from direct experience, and from our parents. In a modern society knowledge increasingly comes from mediating agencies – schools, the government, the media. We are led, even encouraged to believe that the little direct, personal experience we have is of no real value. What has value is what we are told by our authorities, who have a proper grasp of the objective world. It is, increasingly, our authorities who are in command of ‘the facts’.

Whoever controls academia, the government, and the media, therefore, controls in a very literal and complete sense our thoughts, our decisions, and our lives. It thus behooves us to know who those people are, and whether they in fact have our best interests at heart. In the immortal, though oxymoronic words of George Bush Sr., ‘Trust – but verify.’ Well, easier said than done, but to the extent that we are aware of who our authorities are we are free. To the extent that we are not aware of it, we may be becoming their unwitting slaves.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Pioneers

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When I attempt an explanation of something I often find that the greater my conviction of the truth of it, the more I turn out to be saying that "A is A, because it's A". And so it is that I've just written a bunch of really obvious stuff. But no, I shan't delete it. It’s supposed to address, or partly address, the question of why we don't move even when danger seems to threaten.

Mainstream truth - the shared knowledge that holds a society together in all its many aspects - is by definition (if not by intuition) a very narrow and confined/confining thing. Like a train on the tracks, it just has to be here and only here, going in this direction and no other. Anyone who gets invited onto a mainstream radio or TV show is very much plugging into the system, getting into harness, implicitly agreeing to stay within bounds and toe the party line – choose your own metaphor. The rare occasions when radio guests leave the beaten path of consensus truth on the public airwaves inevitably cause a negative stir, and these individuals - unless, like George Carlin, they have entertainment value (a great way to broadcast unpalatable truths) - either don't get invited back, or are thereafter introduced in suitably warning tones, as "the maverick...", "the controversial...", "the iconoclastic...", "the conspiracy theorist..." so as to cue us to the properly guarded stance we should adopt to everything they say. And there's the tautology - the mainstream cannot but deal in the consensus, forever justifying it. The fringe can only occupy a marginal place in our consciousness, forever in opposition. Minorities are, by definition, few in number. Unpopularity is a necessarily small set. As I say, kind of obvious.

But obvious truths, once their outlines have been chiseled out of the rock face, give a good footing for reaching higher understandings. Here’s one: if things are going radically off the rails then the mainstream cannot provide the knowledge needed to deal with it. In a way, it must deny it, to stay true to itself. Our popularly-elected spokespeople for this or that branch of knowledge may hint at dangers, but it really isn't in their ambit to say - on German radio, say, in 1938, "Guys, this Hitler fanatic who now runs the country is a total freak, and if you've a drop of Jewish blood in your body get the hell out of here now!" These kinds of warnings can only be whispered privately, and, as we well know, will likely not be taken seriously even when the evidence of their truth is all but staring us in the face. Because by the time we, the majority, are really confronted by the truth of a radically new situation, it's altogether too late. Whatever change there is, must begin with a minority - obviously. So, equally obviously, if there's change the majority must always be behind the curve. If they were not, then we'd all be multi-millionaires for having jumped onto this or that next great thing - or having jumped off the last great thing that's now about to tank. This obviously can't and doesn't happen.

There are clear advantages in sticking with the herd, or there wouldn’t be one to stick to. The very size of the herd is its own justification. There is safety in numbers. The majority viewpoint is the tried and tested path. It has been shown to work - that so many people are riding on it is living proof of that. More tautologies. Popularity is popular.

But history is painfully punctuated - indeed, is defined - by upheavals. And an upheaval is - again, by definition - a brief period in which the majority gets stiffed. As long as things are more or less progressing without a major hitch we can say that we have a mainstream situation, and a consensus truth that mirrors it. History has nothing to say about these periods at all. To the outside observer nothing interesting is happening. Bourgeois heaven!

But then an earthquake, an invasion, a drought, a flood, a meteorite strike, a major bankruptcy, a sex scandal rocks the Establishment. The majority's comfort zone is invaded, and it makes the news - and enters the history books because those involved were caught off-guard. And even then it's not the poor, suffering majority that the news highlights, but the sons of bitches - or the heroes - who caused whatever it was to happen. A tiny minority. Sorry, but it is impossible to identify with a starving million. The faceless multitude is just that: faceless, as every journalist knows.

So I guess what I'm trying to say - light at last! - is that the inventor, the financier, the industrialist, the explorer share with Cassandra the ability to sense, or maybe imagine, the shape of a different future before others do - and to act on it. And none of the above will be able to sway the majority to their opinion until after they have made their significant move. That's what makes them all pioneers - a bit odd, a bit quirky, temperamental perhaps, eccentric certainly. In a word, not mainstream. But not glamorous, either - until and unless they become celebrities for their predictive success, and get invited on a talk show safely after the event that made them famous. Other than that they’re a damned nuisance.

And there's obvious risk in sticking your neck out. If there weren't, then more would do it, and it would be a mainstream thing. The US Patent records are packed with ideas that never got off the ground, were never accepted, but history doesn't celebrate the legions that get trodden under. It shows the narrow path that we all took after the last shakeout came to an end and the pioneers became the celebrities of the day - after first being pilloried, of course, for their crackpot beliefs. The mainstream loudly celebrates the mountains of its success. The valleys it ignores. The mainstream is, above all, optimistic.

I tried out for the role of Cassandra in 1999, when I thought Y2K would cause TEOTWAWKI*, and got roundly booed off the stage. You can't do that too often and expect to hold an audience. Besides, (and apart from my being the wrong sex) Cassandra wasn't a popular gal even when she was right. It just isn't an attractive role. Particularly for Americans, who (in the words of Robert Duval in Network) crave, above all, a "big-tittied success" (Cassandra was, I strongly suspect, flat-chested). And paradigm shifts are not lightweight furniture, to be shunted about at will. On the contrary, it's very much against our will that they work - another good reason we shun, rather than shunt, them.

One of my favorite sayings is a Roman one - "The Fates lead the willing. The unwilling they drag". The other day - finishing a 123-page doomsday report that I actually paid $36 to download - I came across a similar one, from Mongolia:

"Ride out to meet your destiny - or be consumed by the stampede of Fate."

This sort of pioneering courage strikes me as the attitude necessary for an adventurer. The authors of the report made a very telling point. They said they were not marketing fear, and urged their readers not to act out of fear, but to "follow your nose". They also quoted R. Buckminster Fuller, that great American scientist-sage, "Choose a prevailing force - and use it!" Danger and opportunity, as the Chinese observe, go hand in hand. The fear factor comes in because we think we're losing something. The truth is, we've got too used to what we know, and are hanging onto it, forgetting that this, too, was once frighteningly unfamiliar; the province of pioneers.

__________________________________

*The End Of The World As We Know It.

Monday, December 13, 2010

AMBROSE BIERCE - AMERICAN SATIRIST

. Some may call him jaundiced. He would say realistic. I would say thought-provoking...

Excerpts
from The Devil’s Dictionary, compiled by Bierce over a period from 1881 to 1906, and republished by The Folio Society, London, 2003 -
Absurdity A statement of belief manifestly inconsistent with one’s own opinion.
Accident An inevitable occurrence due to the immutability of natural laws.
Actually Perhaps; possibly.
Allah The Mohametan Supreme Being, as distinguished from the Christian, Jewish, and so forth.
Bigot One who is obstinately and zealously attached to a belief that you do not entertain.
Bore A person who talks when you wish him to listen.
Boundary In political geography, an imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of the other.
Christian One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor…
Compulsion The eloquence of power.
Conservative A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.
Contempt The feeling of a prudent man for an enemy who is too formidable safely to be opposed.
Corporation An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.
Decide [one of my favorites – PH] To succumb to the preponderance of one set of influences over another set.
Deliberation [ditto – PH] The act of examining one’s bread to determine which side it is buttered on.
Diplomacy The patriotic art of lying for one’s country.
Disabuse To present your neighbor with another and better error than the one he has deemed it advantageous to embrace.
Effect The second of two phenomena which always occur in the same order. The first, called a Cause, is said to generate the other - which is no more sensible than it would be for one who has never seen a dog except in pursuit of a rabbit to declare the rabbit the cause of the dog.
Friendship A ship big enough to carry two in fair weather, but only one in foul.
Future That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true, and our happiness is assured.
Gravitation The tendency of all bodies to approach one another with a strength proportional to the quantity of matter they contain – the quantity of matter they contain being ascertained by the strength of their tendency to approach one another…
Impunity Wealth.
Ignoramus A person unacquainted with certain kinds of knowledge familiar to yourself, and having certain other kinds that you know nothing about.
Immoral Inexpedient… If man’s notions of right and wrong have any other basis than this… if actions have in themselves a moral character apart from and nowise dependent on their consequences – then all philosophy is a lie and reason a disorder of the mind.
Mad Affected by a high degree of intellectual independence;… at odds with the majority; in short, unusual. It is noteworthy that persons are pronounced mad by officials destitute of evidence that [they] themselves are sane.
Pray To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.
Preference A sentiment, or frame of mind, induced by the erroneous belief that one thing is better than another.
Prelate A Church officer having a superior degree of holiness… One of Heaven’s aristocracy. A gentleman of God.
Present That part of eternity dividing the domain of disappointment from the realm of hope.
Proof Evidence having a shade more of plausibility than of unlikelihood. The testimony of two credible witnesses as opposed to that of one.
Saint A dead sinner, revised and edited.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Woman Scorned.

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You may be wondering, like me, how Julian Assange suddenly finds himself accused of rape just after he embarrasses the Swedish, British, and American governments with his latest WikiLeaks exposees. Well you see, there's justice, and then there's revenge. Despite all the high-minded rhetoric it turns out that the latter trumps the former, at least where sex and politics are concerned -

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Toot! Toot!

Just a bit of trumpet blowing...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IflOrMKj9wM

The Terror Threat is Home Made

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I just read the article linked below. If, like too many people I talk to, you still believe that international terrorism is a real threat which – thanks in large part to events that occurred on 9/11/2001 - needs draconian counter-measures including wars overseas, TSA groping, confiscation of harmless personal property, CCTV cameras everywhere, and stepped-up surveillance of the internet, then you need to read it too, and maybe pass the link on.

We’re being fooled, guys. We’re being fooled like never before.

http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article26923.htm

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Our Cultural Immune System


I’ve kept pretty quiet about the 7/7/05 bomb attacks in London, largely because 9/11 is my main thing, and also, I suppose, because I recognize that people’s ability to swallow evidence that undermines their world view is necessarily rather limited, if not non-existent, so why upset them?

But I’m making an exception now. A very hard-hitting and well-researched video has just come out which I really hope you’ll take the trouble to view (linked at the bottom of this blog entry), and for me it highlights the central issue that has preoccupied me these last four or five years – why do we all perceive the world so differently, if (as science tells us) what we’re looking at is the same world for everyone?

Twice in the last couple of weeks, at lunch with friends, the subject of the 9/11 attacks has come up, and, faced with my assertion that it was an inside job, they have challenged me with the question “What could possibly be the motive for such an attack, if it wasn’t Muslim fanatics?”

This question is not the neutral request for illumination that it may seem. Rather, it protects, I think, a natural unwillingness to open up to the painful questions raised by the 9/11 Truth Movement. It basically says (albeit politely) “With this shocking – even vulgar - suggestion you are challenging my faith in the loyalty of America’s political leadership to her own people. That is presumptuous! The power and importance of American patriotism is out of all proportion to the envious and mean-spirited attempts of non-authoritative people like you to undermine it.” They can then proceed to shoot down any and all motives heretics such as I put forward, because – and this is important – motive can always be brushed aside as ‘insufficient’, ‘absurd’, ‘unsubstantiated’, etc. The demand for motives effectively shields their feeling of incredulity from further assault.

Against our cultural immune system, the argument of sufficient motive carries little weight. It's like fighting fire with fire. It appeals to our values, and our world view is the highest value we have. Contrary values can be easily dismissed as manifestly of lower quality than our present beliefs. This is how arguments about politics lead to name-calling, and then to blows. (This is also how conflicting scientific theories lead to name-calling, but that’s for another blog.)

Any sincere quest for 9/11 truth, it seems to me, should rather begin with an examination of the evidence. Underlying our belief in the power of science is our supposed belief, above all else, in physical evidence. The welter of popular TV series about forensic investigators nailing their man with the aid of a microscope all hammer on this point. You can't deny physical evidence. The physical world is our bedrock belief, on which everything else rests.

Those who perpetrated 9/11 – and 7/7 – of course know the importance of physical evidence. They have therefore attempted to cover their tracks by every means available to them (and they are in the best position to do so). You cannot examine evidence which either is no longer there, or which is declared off-limits, or which you don’t know exists.

The hiding of evidence takes many forms...
It can be denied - like the date-stamped plane parts that would identify the 9/11 planes (supposedly evaporated),
or spirited away - like the 9/11 debris (cordoned off from investigators, and hastily removed and sold to China),
or our attention can be directed elsewhere - like the NIST report on the destruction of the Twin Towers (which ends where the collapses begin),
or witness testimony can be ignored - like the 9/11 Commission Report (which omitted voluminous evidence counter to the official government theory),
or whistle-blowers can be fired - like Kevin Ryan of the Underwriters Laboratory (who questioned the supposed lack of integrity of the steel used in the buildings),
and investigators intimidated - like Christopher Bollyn (beaten up outside his house by the police), -
or murdered - like John O’Neill (sent to his death in Tower One - his first day on the job as Chief Security Officer, having questioned why the government was ignoring evidence of an impending attack), and the four patsies and one unwilling participant in the London bombings.

And, since it's impossible to be open to everything, we also perform our own censorship, often unconsciously, to block out evidence that doesn't agree with our world view. We see only what we believe. We flatly discount evidence that disagrees with our own preconceptions. We also discount what comes from untrusted sources - that is, sources that do not share our world view - unless it happens to agree with us. We declare evidence irrelevant. And so on.

I personally am very much swayed by the arguments in the linked video. You could say I don’t have an open mind. I’m biased in its favor. I accept the sources as trustworthy, where others may only accept mainstream sources. I believe the evidence presented. Is there such a thing as an open mind? Perhaps, if the question is trivial. The questions posed by this video, however, are very far from trivial, so I don’t expect you to have an open mind, any more than me, or the judges at the 7/7 trial in London, to whom this video was sent, and who promptly had its maker arrested - in Ireland.

Here's the link -

http://www.archive.org/details/7-7RippleEffect

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Limits of Thought

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The link at the bottom is to a radio phone-in show exchange that occurred on 20 October, 2010 between Australian trade union leader Kevin Bracken and Melbourne’s 774 ABC show presenter Jon Faine.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Guillard felt it necessary to dismiss Mr. Bracken’s beliefs, briefly outlined to Mr. Faine, as “stupid and wrong”. Shadow Attorney General Robert Clarke said Mr Bracken's comments were a direct insult to Australian soldiers serving in Afghanistan. The Australian trade union secretary, Brian Boyd, said Mr Bracken did not speak on behalf of the organization, and that "The official Trades Hall position is not to entertain that theory". MUA union national secretary Paddy Crumlin also distanced the union from Mr. Bracken’s comments.

No-one suggested that Mr. Bracken had every right to express these views, or that the behaviour of Mr. Faine, the phone-in talk show presenter, had been anything other than exemplary in attempting to first ridicule and then silence him. I am instantly reminded of the recent WikiLeaks scandal, in which Hillary Clinton was twice quoted in a BBC newscast as condemning the exposure of American government skullduggery in the “Iraq Diaries”, and never a word of condemnation of what the leaks revealed.

While all of the above-quoted reactions can themselves be defended as free speech, they share the common characteristic that they were all attempts to guide the public into channels of opinion that are considered “correct” by our political leaders. The beliefs uttered by Mr. Bracken on the public airwaves were not mainstream beliefs, should never have been heard in such a forum, and it was felt immediately necessary to inoculate the public against them.

The Australian reported that the Federal Opposition, however, went further, with Victorian MP Josh Frydenberg asking Ms Gillard in Parliament what action she would take against Mr Bracken “to send a message that such remarks are unacceptable”. This strikes me as a very small step short of banning altogether the public declaration of views such as those held by Mr. Bracken. In Europe, as you probably know, it is now illegal to declare publicly any disbelief in the Jewish Holocaust. In Muslim countries, of course, there are similar injunctions against defamation of the Prophet Mohammed, and much more besides.

And I think this brings us to the point of this little brouhaha. Mental freedom, like other kinds of freedom, has limits. We’re not generally aware of this, because it’s not, mostly, in our nature to test the limits of mental freedom. Indeed, those limits very much define who we are. Outside them lies madness, the world of crazies and lunatics, a mental cliff which consists of nothing other than disobedience to the strict limits every culture imposes on thought. Mostly, we swim apparently entirely freely in this shared stream of thought. And that very freedom gives it the feel of objective reality.

But the very real social and cultural constraints on thought – even in our so-called democracies - are every bit as absolute as those which govern our bodies. We may swim freely between the mental banks set by our cultural mainstream, but any attempt to change the course of that stream and our voice will be swiftly drowned out.

The present example of thought control is fairly typical in that it staunchly avoids any appeal to the physical evidence which one might suppose a science-based culture would feel it necessary to marshal to support censorship. In fact, it’s quite striking how little part physical evidence plays in the structure of our most cherished beliefs. On the other hand the example is remarkable because the subject matter censored does not, apparently, involve the protection of Australia’s interests. Why did first Mr. Faine, and shortly thereafter all these public figures, feel it necessary to so thoroughly silence Mr. Bracken on a matter seemingly only affecting another nation?

I offer two reasons. First, Mr. Bracken is something of a public figure himself, and so his views may (and indeed did) have wider impact than those of a mere nonentity. Second, the dam that Mr. Bracken proposes breaching will inevitably cause political waves which will spread far further than the borders of America.

The reaction of Jon Faine, the show host, is singular also in its sudden intensity. It’s almost as if Mr. Faine feels as much threatened by Mr. Bracken’s remarks as if he had declared the Holocaust a hoax (Faine is Jewish).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tE3pMPObcGU

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Objectivity

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Our experience tells us that the physical world is solid, real, and independent of us. Quantum mechanics says, simply, that this is not so.
[The Dancing Wu Li Masters – Gary Zukav, p.78. Bantam Books, 1986.]

There’s a lot I want to write in this blog, about the impermanence of “facts”, the importance of authority, the equivalence of consensus and "truth", and of course the 9/11 elephant that’s still hiding conspicuously in your living room. But it’s been hard to know where to start. Whenever I feel the urge coming on an internal voice interrupts me: “Nope, you can’t say that until you’ve explained this!” So then I ponder “this” and realize that it, too, requires preliminary explanation.

So, it looks like we’re going to have to go back to first principles. Which actually suits me just fine, as one of the reasons I started this blog was the conviction that our foundational Western belief in “scientific objectivity” is leading us literally into a dead end, and to rescue the situation we all need to recognize this belief we have in an independent, objective reality for the harmful prejudice that it actually is.

I need some authority behind me on this one, so in this entry I shall quote from one of a small handful of books that have made a great impression on me; The Dancing Wu Li Masters, by Gary Zukav. The quote at the top concerns the foundational paradigm I want to get at first, and Albert Einstein has more to say about it –

Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world.

Zukav adds –

Most people believe that physicists are explaining the world. Some physicists even believe that, but the Wu Li Masters know that they are only dancing with it.

And a page further on –

...it is no longer evident whether scientists really discover new things, or whether they create them.

It’s easy to skim over this stuff without taking in the paradigm-smashing import of what, with considerable scientific authority, is being said. Zukav states the shift of focus now required of us –

“Participator” is the incontrovertible new concept given by quantum mechanics. It strikes down the term “observer” of classical theory, the man who stands behind the thick glass wall and watches what goes on without taking part. It can’t be done, quantum mechanics says.

Quantum mechanics leads to the possibility that reality is what we choose to make it. I repeat, this is not New Age mumbo jumbo. This is respectable physics (though not in the conventional sense). Because gravity will act on you whether you’re a skeptic, a True Believer, or a careless goat, philosophers have been led to conclude that the universe goes heedlessly on its way regardless of what we do, and scientists to believe in the existence – somewhere - of “absolute objectivity”. Objectivity tells us that the world is “out there” and we – the (mere) subject, whose interests and concerns have no real weight at all – are “in here”. Objectivity supposedly involves eliminating the prejudices of the one doing the observing.

Our daily experience seems to allow for this. The world “out there” seems – no, surely, is! – undeniably real. But the effort to eliminate the subject that experiences this undeniable reality itself involves prejudice. The prejudice of the scientist is, paradoxically, his supposed objectivity. One of the aims of science has been to get us off our high horse - to dethrone us from our pre-scientific occupation of the centre of the universe, and organised religion as the ruling authority of that occupation. Science has sought to replace the absolute of religion (God) with the absolute of objectivity (Flatland): that which is true for all observers. He who can claim objectivity can claim to know the truth, or at least the path to it. And so we face today a new hegemony; that of objective science, which - I am reliably informed by a follower of science - is above mere opinion, and whose truths, therefore, are incontrovertible. But let me again quote Zukav -

In fact, it is impossible to be without an opinion. An opinion is a point of view. The decision itself to study one segment of reality instead of another is a subjective expression of the researcher who makes it… According to quantum mechanics there is no such thing as objectivity. We cannot eliminate ourselves from the picture.

The new physics is based not upon “absolute truth”, but upon us. It comes as an enormous relief to me, as I hope it does to you, to realize that at least some of the science that has been mostly engaged since Galileo in relentlessly relegating humanity to an ever smaller and less significant role in the universe, now supports the idea that we are after all needed, in order to bring the universe into existence in the first place.

Zukav first published The Dancing Wu Lee Masters in 1979. He based much of it on experiments that were being performed fifty years and more previously. Back in 1958 Niels Bohr had written, in Atomic Theory and Human Knowledge, that quantum mechanics, by its essence, entails "a radical revision of our attitude toward the problem of physical reality." That was more than half a century ago. I don’t believe that any such “radical revision” has yet permeated the brain cells of the public at large, or even of those who consider themselves followers of science. In fact, I think most people feel they have physical reality figured out just fine; it’s other people that have all those crazy ideas and beliefs. Indeed, has the belief that whole swaths of the human population are just plain crazy ever been so prevalent as it is now, in this supposedly scientific age? Zukav remarks -

The more clearly we experience something as “nonsense”, the more clearly we are experiencing the boundaries of our own self-imposed cognitive structures. “Nonsense” is that which does not fit into the prearranged patterns which we have superimposed on reality. There is no such thing as “nonsense” apart from a judgmental intellect that calls it that… Nonsense is nonsense only when we have not yet found that point of view from which it makes sense.

In general physicists do not deal in nonsense. Most of them spend their professional lives thinking along well-established lines of thought. Those scientists who establish the established lines of thought, however, are those who do not fear to venture boldly into nonsense…

Out of the flow of raw experience we form idealizations to explain the world. These idealizations are of such rigid durability that, when subsequent experience contradicts them, we question the validity of the new data, rather than the validity of our idealized abstractions. What we defend as “objectivity” is part of this inevitable prejudice.

Now, with that briefly dealt with, if not entirely out of the way, perhaps I can begin.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Laptop

Some apparently good things are just destined not to happen, and to attempt to force the issue is merely to waste one’s energies. The following little misadventure happened to me a few summers ago. Rather uncharacteristically (I don’t travel that much) the events described spanned the globe.

They began in Arles, a beautiful and ancient city in Provence in the South of France, where I found myself pinned to my chair, not long after my arrival from Manila, by my well-meaning family. The subject was the i-Book laptop, which they had deemed it necessary for me to acquire. They are Mac-fanatics all -

"It's about time you faced reality," this from Christophe, my French son-in-law.

"Yes, Papa! It’s the twenty-first century, for heaven’s sake!" this from Tina, the person through whom Christophe and I were connected.

"The PC is so unreliable; it’s a dinosaur Pa!" (That's my youngest, Angela, chiming in.)

"The Mac's so intuitive. Believe me, you'll never look back.” (Tina again.)

"Tomorrow you'll be right there, in Manhattan, where the main store is! Gosh, I wish it was me!" (Angela.)

My defence - “Look, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” - is treated with groans all round.

"Don’t worry, bonpere, the new i-Book really is unbelievably cheap, considering what an incredible machine it is," Christophe astutely pre-empts my final defense.

"Come on, Pa, splurge a little for once. You can afford it!" chorus my daughters.

"I'm not saying I'm against Apples, or Macs, or whatever they are," I protest, weakly, "I just don't really see the need for a laptop right now..."

"That's because you don't yet have one," Tina explains patiently, as to a small child.

"Look, just give it a try. If you don't like it you can give it to me!" chirps Angela, brightly.

"Alright, alright!” I hold up both hands in surrender, “I’ll get one. Good grief!"

"Yehey!" they all cheer.

And that's pretty much where it all started.

Next day the shuttle from JFK deposited me at Grand Central Station. The conspicuous presence of a trio of heavily armed National Guardsmen reminded me that the 9/11 attacks had occurred just a few blocks away. I stopped at a money changer's kiosk and converted just enough sterling into dollars to see me through the weekend. The larger amount I needed for the trip to the Apple Store could wait until I'd scheduled the purchase with my hosts, Craig and Lil. Maybe I could still back out, I told myself.

Behind the thick glass the dark-complexioned young money changer counted out my dollars and, with an Indian accent that Peter Sellers would have been proud of, wished me a pleasant day. Minutes later I was out on the sidewalk, headed two blocks up to Craig and Lil's apartment.

It was, in fact, first thing next morning, that I found myself back at the same booth in Grand Central, this time with Craig – another Mac fanatic – at my elbow. He wanted to come along ‘to hold my hand’ during this important purchase. No way should I change my mind, he insisted; this was a Wise Decision. So, fortified by the insistence of my family back in France, and now by the assurances of Craig and his wife Lil (yet another Mac enthusiast) that I was taking a step into a Better Future, I counted out the equivalent of $1250 in pounds sterling and thrust them through the little window at the young Indian inside.

“May I see your passport, please?” he asked, in his imitation of Peter Sellers imitating an Indian speaking English.

”What?” I pressed my ear to the aperture through which I had just pushed my money.

“Your passport, please. I need your passport.”

“But you didn’t need it yesterday,” I protested, now lowering my mouth to the opening. “Remember? I changed some money here less than 24 hours ago.” I replaced my mouth with my ear.

“You did? How much?”

“A hundred pounds,” again with the mouth.

“But you see that was a small mount. For that amount I do not need to see your passport. This is a large amount. Passport, please.”

“Well, I don’t have my passport with me.”

“Then I cannot change your money.”

“But that’s ridiculous! What difference will my passport make?”

“That is the regulation. I am just following the rules.”

“But the rules must be there for a reason. What’s the reason?”

“It is possible you could be laundering money.”

“And how would seeing my passport prevent that?”

“Look, those are the rules. If you do not like them you can try to change your money somewhere else.”

I pleaded and cajoled for some minutes, Craig watching from the sidelines with a slightly bemused expression, but nothing would budge him.

“Wait a minute!” A brilliant solution suddenly came to me. “What’s the maximum I can change without having to show my passport?”

“One thousand dollars.”

“No problem!” I counted out half my notes to Craig, and proffered our Indian friend the remainder. “Here’s four hundred pounds. I’d like to change this into dollars, please.”

“I’m sorry, but I cannot allow that.”

“Excuse me? Can’t allow what?”

“You just handed half your money to your friend. I saw that. He is just going to change it for you.”

“That’s right. So what? As far as you’re concerned, we each have less than $750. You’ll record two separate transactions.”

“But you know and I know that it is all your money, so the total amount is the same. He is just pretending it is his money.”

“Well, yes, that could be true, but what of it? I’m changing four hundred pounds, and he’s changing four hundred pounds. Two people. Two transactions.”

“But, you see, I know it is still your money! I am not stupid. You are not allowed to do that!”

“Look, mate, it’s really none of your business whose money it is.”

“But I am telling you it is the United States Government’s business if it is more than one thousand dollars!”

“I tell you what, just forget my first request, ok? That’s history. I’m not changing a thousand dollars, see? Now I’m changing four hundred dollars. And I believe this gentleman here wants to change some money too.”

“Not here he won’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because that is structuring.”

What?”

“Structuring,” he repeated. “That is when an amount of money in excess of the maximum permitted without identification is divided into smaller amounts with intent to evade legal limits imposed by the United States Federal currency exchange regulations.”

“Wait a minute! Let me step in here,” interrupted Craig. He handed me back my money. “Paul, let’s start again. Are you giving me this money of your own free will?”

“Certainly I am.” I agreed, seeing where this was going, and handed it back to him. “There you are, Craigy my man, it’s yours to do what you like with.”

“And I am accepting this money. Thank you very much.”

“You’re welcome,” said I, as he put it in his pocket. Craig turned confidently to the money changer. “Here’s four hundred pounds. This is my money. My friend here just gave it to me. You saw and heard him voluntarily relinquish possession of it. Now it’s mine. I own it. It belongs to me. And I’d like to change it, please, into -”

“No it is not yours and that is not permitted and I am not changing it.”

“Well why the hell not?”

“You think that you can circumvent the currency regulations of the government of the United States of America by playing these tricks, but I know what you are doing and you won’t get away with it!”

“But it’s just…”, I stopped in mid-sentence. ”Just a second! We’ll be back!”

Across the hall I had just spied a very large policeman. I crossed to him.

“Excuse me, ah, Constable –

“Officer Johnson, yes, how - ?”

“… officer, but I’m having a little problem over here and I wonder if you can help me sort it out?”

“Certainly. What seems to be the problem?” I explained the situation to him as we crossed the hall back to the booth. The money changer drew himself up a bit as we approached. His knuckles looked a bit pale, I thought, where they gripped the counter. Officer Johnson leaned towards the window.

“Are you going to change these gentlemen’s money?”

“No, I am not!”

“Why not?”

“Because , as I have just explained to them, it is structuring, and that is against the law!”

Officer Johnson turned to me. “I’m not sure I’m qualified to intervene here, sir. He says it’s against the law.”

“But how can two people, changing four hundred pounds each, be against a law that says one thousand dollars or less each is legal?”

Officer Johnson turned back to the window.

“Because it is all his money!” interjected our changer before he could open his mouth, “He just gave half of it to the other fellow!”

“So, why is that a problem? It’s two people now, like he says” Officer Johnson leaned on the counter, and, mostly for our benefit I suspect, attempted a menacing scowl. “Just give them their money,”

“Yeah! Give us our money!” Craig and I joined in threatening unison, and we all three glared at the money changer through the glass. He rose nervously up and down on his toes several times, but he wouldn’t budge, and after a few more tense moments eyeball to eyeball with him, Officer Johnson blinked and turned to me.

“I think you’ll have to sort this out between you. He doesn’t seem to want to back down. Good luck!” and he strode off, shaking his head.

More muscle was, however, at hand. Further off stood the three militia I’d seen the day before, guarding the train station from terrorist attack; two men and a woman. They were dressed in black and infested with weaponry. I squared my shoulders and approached them.

“Excuse me…'”

A few moments later our Indian friend was face to face with three National Guardsmen, complete with machine guns, MACE, tasers, Bowie knives, and handcuffs. One of them, the largest, leaned towards the transaction window and addressed the cause of our problem, twirling his cuffs suggestively,

“So, what’s the deal? You gonna give these guys their dough, or what?”

“Yeah!” Craig and I echoed from the rear, “You gonna give us our dough, or what?”

“This is intimidation! You can threaten me all you want, but I am not going to give in!” retorted our man in a falsetto.

“Oh yeah?” said the second militiamen.

“And that is my final word,” he added, clutching the rim of the counter for support.

“Well, I guess we could shoot up the booth,” offered the Guardswoman, reaching through the window and feeling the thickness of the glass experimentally. “Other than that, there’s not a whole lot we can do,” and after a few more moments they, too, turned on their heels and left.

Craig and I leaned an elbow each on the counter, rested our chins on our hands, and stared at each other. Our money changer busied himself adjusting the few objects on his desk, examining his watch, and studiously ignoring our presence.

“I don’t believe this!” said Craig after a while. Then, after another long silence, “Let’s leave.”

“You mean, you’re giving up?”

Craig just signaled me to follow him, and we left the booth and marched round a corner.

“Maybe we can try showing up separately,” he whispered. “When he’s served me, you can show up after I leave. That way he has to serve at last one of us”

He allowed a diplomatic hiatus before heading back, and I watched from the shadows as he again produced his – alright, my - money and pushed it through the window. A few moments passed and then I saw him put his ear up against the glass. His exclamation of disbelief reached me above the noise of Grand Central at 9:15 on a Friday morning.

What?!'” He listened again, and then doubled over with laughter. Unable to contain my curiosity I ran to join him.

What now?”

“No dice, Paul!”

“You’re kidding me! Why not?!”

“He says the armored car hasn’t arrived yet. He hasn’t got any money!”

We left Grand Central in a sort of daze, and stopped at a bank – Chase Manhattan I think, but I can’t be sure – where I was able to change the entire amount without difficulty, no questions asked, and at a higher rate than I had at Grand Central Station the previous day. We then proceeded to the impressive Apple Store – not the main one I have previously referred to, but slightly further uptown. Wide, solid glass stairs arced gracefully out of sight towards the second floor, and there were flashy new gadgets everywhere to play with. I made my purchase. I had finally joined the Mac community, and regained the respect of family and friends.

As it happened I was unable to open my new acquisition until the next day, a Saturday, when I was already staying with my sister up in South Salem, north of NYC. In anticipation of my purchase Christophe had painstakingly burned me a present of five DVDs from a popular British TV series, an episode of which we had watched together in Arles, and I had almost missed my plane waiting for the somewhat lengthy process to be completed. I was eager to share an episode with my sister: it would give me an opportunity to impress her with my new laptop. Better still, I could now view the rest of them on the long plane ride back to Manila the following night. My Mac was already coming into its own! As soon as I arrived I plugged it in to charge, and we agreed to watch that evening.

But things didn’t go as planned. Jaye and Gabe waited patiently on their settee as I carefully inserted one of the DVDs in the drive – and nothing happened. I tried to eject it, but that didn’t happen either. Nor would the laptop shut down, or respond to any further command.

“Christophe’s bloody home-made DVD seems to have… done something to the… The whole thing seems to have… locked solid!” I muttered in embarrassment, hitting the side of the case ineffectually with my palm.

My spirits ebbed further as the full extent of my predicament began to sink in. It was Saturday evening. I had been informed that the Apple Store wasn’t open this Sunday, and before Monday I would already be on my way back to Manila. If I left this now useless chunk of metal and plastic with Jaye – I smacked the side of it again - how would I retrieve it? The only thing was to take it with me and trust that I could get it fixed in Manila. At least it had an international warranty.

In no doubt that the cause of the problem had to be the DVD I very reluctantly destroyed the remaining four disks rather than risk further damage trying them out later. The fifth stayed stuck in the drive.

As my night flight home reached cruising altitude and they dimmed the cabin lights I became aware of the mocking glow of laptop screens all around me. “You should see mine. It’s positively the latest thing!” I wanted to assure everyone. Instead I reached forward defiantly to turn on the tiny TV screen supplied by the airline – and the seat back in which it was embedded suddenly and fully reclined to within about 12 inches of my nose. Trying to watch “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” from this distance I felt a headache coming on, gave up, and feigned sleep.

Back in Manila the Mac store technician was able, after two weeks, to replace the DVD burner, which he assured me had been the cause of the problem, and not the DVD we had tried to watch. I thought ruefully of the DVDs I had destroyed, but at least my i-Book was working at last. I took it home, and for the first time since I had bought it turned it on to explore its capabilities. I then discovered a most extraordinary thing. Whenever I touched the mouse pad the cursor would fly to one or another edge of the screen, as if magnetized! I couldn’t control it at all.

Furious, but also diffident in the presence of a younger and nimbler Mac user, I described my problem to Angela, freshly home from Arles. She rolled her eyes at her Luddite father’s incompetence, and assured me that nothing whatever was the matter with the Mac. The problem was with me. I just had to get myself up to speed, that was all. Humbled, I agreed that the mouse pad was a new experience for me, and retreated meekly to my study. There I struggled miserably for another week to master it, but still completely without success. The mouse pad was a thing possessed.

Meanwhile, there were urgent computer-related matters – email especially - piling up that demanded attention, and the only workable machine I had available to me was that trusty old workhorse, my desktop PC. Soon I was back in the old saddle, my balky i-Book sidelined.

Returning home one evening from the office I chanced on Angela’s Mac Notepad, left open and running ostentatiously on the dining room table. Carelessly displayed on the screen was an email from her sister. It ended with the exasperated comment –

“He’s just being stubborn. An old dog can learn new tricks!”

Well, eventually, and to Angela’s great credit, I was able to get her to concede that something wasn’t quite right with my i-Book, and back I took it, with her permission, to the local Apple store. There it again sat for a considerable while before the technician admitted that there was a glitch in the operating system, and that this could not be fixed in the Philippines.

“It’s brand new, so still under warranty. I suggest you ask Apple New York to either repair it or give you a new one.”

“Apple New York? I was there a month ago, but now it’s on the other side of the planet! Anyway, you’re Apple! Can’t you get in touch with them?”

“Won’t do any good, sir. Not in this case. A defect in the operating system is their domain. You’ll have to contact them direct.”

I consulted the warranty booklet, but, rather oddly, there was no email address to contact, only street addresses in America where laptops and accessories could be bought, or, I presumed, returned for repair. Since I didn’t want to take the expensive risk of mailing them back a computer without their permission I got on the internet with my desktop PC, and scoured the Apple website for ‘Repairs’, then for ‘Complaints’, then for ‘Contact Us’. The only email addresses I could find were for sharing one’s enthusiasm for the wonders of the Mac, and making further purchases.

Finally, I sent an email to the sales department, with a request to whomever read it to kindly forward it to someone who could deal with my difficulty. This they evidently did, because I received a commendably swift reply from a lady somewhere in Seattle I think, and was able to explain to her that events had so far overtaken my i-Book that it was really of no further use to me, and would they please just refund my money? This she agreed to do, upon receipt of the computer, case, accessories, warranty, and purchase information, all of which they accepted via their courier account, and a few days later confirmation came from my bank that a telegraphic transfer for the full value of the laptop had been received.

I continue to be surrounded by Macs, and no opportunity is missed to unflatteringly compare my ‘clunky’ PCs with the ever sleeker machines that adorn my children’s work spaces - but not, I think, with any great expectation that I shall ever again switch my loyalties. You can’t, they seem now to agree, teach an old dog new tricks after all.