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Life Affirming - Million Dollar Baby

... Spoiler Alert ...
Continue reading after you've seen the movie.

Million Dollar Baby starts off like a female version of Rocky. Maggie is an aspiring boxer, endowed with little besides a stubborn determination. She pester the unwilling coach Frankie to train her. Finally she has overcome his reluctance and eventually fight her way up to challenge the championship. Then the movie takes a sharp turn when an accident in the boxing ring has badly injured her. Rather than accepting life in her now paralyzed body, she requested to be relieved from the lesser existence.

To me the story of Maggie is a life affirming story.

For most of history, the nature decides who lives and who dies. If an injury does not kill you, the starvation will. Modern technology changed this and in many cases allow us to sustain life for as long as one is willing. Our culture tell us to delay death at all cost. Even the most diminished patient can now be sustained. So much that what is considered life should perhaps be called "not-dead". When life is reduced to mere not-dead, this is actually a desecration of life.

Maggie recognizes that there is vitality in a worthy life. She has the vitality once. But it is unfortunately now lost. By rejecting "not-dead" in her self-assured way, she honors the life she has lived. Paradoxically, this makes it a really life affirming story.

2011.11.26 [, ] - comments

 

Army Ants And Me

When we think about predators, we usually think of those fearsome animals like lions and tigers. It may a surprise to learn that one of the most powerful predator is actually some lowly ants. In the forest of Central America there are a family of ants known as army ants. With a strong armor, shearing jaws and more importantly a great number of them, army ants is able to dominate its competitors. Each ant colony consist of a queen and about half a million of worker and soldier ants. They go out to raid in huge swarm. Large insects and invertebrates are no rival to them. Despite their size is much larger than any individual ant, they shear number of ants overwhelmed them. Inevitably any creatures in their path are going to fall prey to the ants.

Photo by Mark Moffett
Army Ants

I was watching a documentary on National Geographics about army ants. The most terrifying scene is to see them raid a wasp nest. A few wasp foolishly fight the ants in vain. Other have no choice but to evacuate the nest. The ants carry out the prize of the raid, which is the wasps' eggs. Having spend so much of their life to guard and nurture their offspring, the wasps watch helplessly as the ants steal them as their food.

This leads me thinking how does human rank against army ants? Humans are intelligent. The ants are dumb. We have only few offspring. But we invest a lot to nurture each one of them. The ants just produce lots and lots of interchangeable workers. You can stomp your foot and kill a dozen. This will do little harm to the colony because they will be replaced by countless others. In comparison human are more vulnerable. The is always a chance for some of us to fallen to diseases or to violence and die prematurely. When this happens, it will be a big loss that is hard to replace. Both species are very successful. Yet is one of these strategy is better from an evolutionary stand point?

Scanning electron microscope image of normal circulating human blood
scanning electron microscope image of normal circulating human blood

A more interesting view point is that we human can actually be a lot like army ants. Instead of looking at us as an individual, lets use a microscope to look inside. In our blood stream there are great number of white blood cells. They are part of our immune system that defend us against infectious diseases. When any invading microbes are detected, our immune system produce a great number of antibody to neutralize them. These microorganism has no intelligence to speak of. They just fight as they suppose to be and they die in great number. In a sense, our immune system work more like army ants. And we own our survival to the service of our immune system.

Studying the nature always fascinates me.

2011.09.10 [] - comments

 

Peacefulness - innate or acquired?

The two world wars, the genocidal wars in Rwanda and Darfur, the US Iraq war, and the even bloodier Iran Iraq war that preceded it, all these produce a horrifying image of the modern era. Yet many academics like Steven Pinker tell us that humanity are actually living in the most peaceful period in the history. Images of destructive modern warfare notwithstanding, violence has been in decline over long stretches of history. Our ancestors were in fact far more violent than we are today.

We tend to romanticize the past, fantasize that early societies as simple, just and peaceful. Yet just the opposite is true. Tribal life may sound idyllic. But avenging for aggression is often the code of justice, as such cycle of violence ensures. In more organized society, people get executed for deeds that's considered minor infraction today. Life is cheap in the old days.

This lead me to rethink peace on a personal level. The conventional thinking is that children are born friendly and peaceful, only to have learned violence from the vicious society they grow up in. Peacefulness is assumed to be the natural state of a person.

I think people have it backward, just like they have in the case of global violence. A person's true natural state is not quite peaceful but often cruel and brutal. It will be a revelation to get over the romanticized image to actually observed the confrontation among peasants or less educated people and what they do to resolve conflicts. It is actually culture and education that do the most to promotes the cooperation and resolve conflicts without resort to violence. Peaceful character to me is more acquired than innate.

I consider myself a somewhat of a pacifist. Yet I don't really held peace as a core value when I was a children. While I was not a bully, I was captivated by war stories, spent hours in shoot 'em up games, cheers when a hero slain or bloodied the villain in movies. But somewhere along the line I have made a moral decision - violence is wrong in most cases. I begin to look at the same war stories with a new perspective of those who suffered. And I feel repulsed when I saw overtly violence in media.

I was rereading the classical Chinese novel Water Margin (水滸傳), a story of medieval bandits rising up against the corrupted government officials. I was absolutely appalled by the horrific violence committed by the supposed heroes. In Chapter 31, the hero Wu Song returns to officer Zhang's home to avenge for his plot against him. First Wu Song killed the servant he encountered. Then He found and killed Zhang and his collaborators. He ran into the madam and killed her too. Then he slaughtered the maids, slaughtered more women, and even slaughtered the children. The only thing that slowed him was that his sword blade was dulled from too much killing. Merciless scenes like this can be found throughout the novel. Remarkably the same novel seems just and entertaining when I grow up. It only starts to appall me when I reread it in my 20s.

To have a better idea about the human's natural state with regard to peace has a implication for me as a parent (and for non-parents who care to nurture the future generations). Like many parents of this generation, we are not incline to use weaponry as toys and tend to restrict viewing of violent pictures. Yet some of my restrictions just seem futile. While I tried hard not to let my son has any toy gun, sometimes he will just play with a stick or some angled object as an imaginary gun. There is something in a boy's mind that prompt him to project his power over others. Eventually I become more relax on restrictions. Censoring alone does not preserve peacefulness. People are not innately friendly and peaceful as one suppose. Empathy, cooperation and reciprocity are really acquired skill from observing and practicing in the society when they grow up. My son will have a lot to learn in the years to come.

2010.11.27 [] - comments

 

Happiness for a Lifetime

In her talk about "The How of Happiness", Sonja Lyubomirsky quoted a famous Chinese proverb:


If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.
If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.
If you want happiness for a month, get married.
If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.
If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody else.

I can't figure out what is the original Chinese version. Nevertheless this strikes me as really insightful. Follow the link to read about her talk on happiness and positive psychology.

2010.10.28 [] - comments

 

Confession of A Buddhist Atheist

Stephen Batchelor, the author of <Confession of A Buddhist Atheist>, has articulated he feeling about atheism very well.

nor am I an Atheist, who has a particular axe to grind with God. I’m not an Atheist in that I have some objection or some dislike of that way of thinking. It’s simply that I see no use or value of entertaining such notions. I feel that I can articulate what I believe to be at the heart of my quest for meaning as a human being without any recourse to such ideas.

I can make perfect sense of the world without making any reference to god. I see no need for me to confirm or deny its existence. I won't call myself atheist though, as this term is usually associated with the opposition to the concept of god. I think a better description for me is "I don't care".

2010.08.05 [, ] - comments

 

Decalogue I

How long ago was it when I went to the marathon screening of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Decalogue, the entire ten episodes shown in one full day? It must be more than 15 years ago. Kieslowski's films have a such important place in my memory, it is hard to imagine he has left more than 10 years ago.

This time I have as much time as I need to review each episodes on DVDs. The Decalogue One, "I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have no other gods before me" is a about a tragic accident. Against all the computer calculation and precaution before going on ice skating on the frozen lake, accident has befallen on the young Paweł. Daddy returns home to stare at the green glow of the screen of his trusted computer. Just yesterday it made the assurance on the ice strength. Now it displays a single message - "I am ready _" with a blinking cursor. The picture remains there silently. It is some of the most contemplative moment in the cinema.

Decalogue I

I don't remember how I feel when I saw this the first time. The message is simple enough. It questions the primacy of science and structure in modern society and to reflect on the diminishing role of religion and spirituality.

Today I think I have resolved such conflict. It is a false dichotomy between science and religion. To me science is spiritual. The story implies a kind of scientific determinism. I think it is old school. Of course old school probably still describes the majority of people, both religious and non-religious. And also we have to take into account of Kieslowski's background working in the communist Poland in the 80s, where determinism is really the rule of the society and has far more relevance for him.

The flaw of Decalogue One is some may see it as an apology for scientists. Many people may simply conclude scientists are arrogant and ultimately hurt people. If so they are too affected by the accident. Kieslowski is a master to induce us into reflection of a moment. But we must not lose the bigger context to a single moment. Can religion or traditional knowledge make a better guideline regarding safety compare to science overall? I doubt it.

And this is only old school science. The "new" science of complexity sees the world as fundamentally nondeterministic. Many events are unpredictable. Accidents do happens. But this does not mean scientific prediction are not useful. They are useful in plenty of ways. The problem is those people who expect 100% certainty are not realistic of their expectation.

In the middle of the film the father was giving a lecture on language. Unlike other old school point of view, this lecture on the relationship of language and intelligence resonates deeply to me. He laments that computers, a machine that operates on 0 and 1, can somehow displays awareness. He was talking about emergence! It strikes me that human, an organism makes up of simple molecules and a lot of H2O can display awareness. So a man made machine, despite its seeming simple logic structure, can conceivably display a consciousness on a high level someday by the similar principle.

I don't have a conflict between science and spirituality. Science is my new religion. This is of course the topic of another 100 blog posts.

2010.06.14 [, ] - comments

 

The Day When Machines Rule The World

Yesterday the U.S. stock market experienced a sudden and volatile fluctuation. Dow Jones index has briefly dropped by 10% during intraday trading. The main culprit seems not to be economic issue but suspect to be a glitch in trading. Apparently one trader has entered an exceptionally large trade by mistake, which set off all the automatic trading program to sell-off. There goes the market value.

Watching this episode I see a picture emerging. This is the day when machines begin to rule the world. For all the vigilance put in place after the computer induced 1987 market crash, we are still, or perhaps even more vulnerable due to more reliance on computers.

The conflict of man against machine seems like a sci-fi plot. But I think it is more realistic than most people think. The problem is we are looking for an anthropomorphous entity like HAL, an supercomputer that knows it all, have immense analytic power, and the most frightening part, it has a mind of its own. As far as I know I don't see anything like this on the horizon.

Instead there are countless software agents roaming the net, collecting information, building database, distributing information and in some case taking active roles like trading stock. This global computer network has developed immensely in the past 2 decades, impacting every aspect of our society. Mostly it makes our economy more efficient and keeping us better informed. But does the system also enslave us in some way? Are human truly in control of our destiny. Or are we at the mercy of the system?

I am imagining how the next computer glitch would look like. Think Google Calendar. One day it may suddenly 'recommend' a political rally event to all users, those logic that even its creator cannot explain. And our history may have changed as a result.

2010.05.07 [, ] - comments

 

Your Second Life Is Better Than Your First Life?

Your walk in a cafe. You see everyone is working alone with their laptop. Nobody is talking to each other. Even the most ardent Internet junkie would admit they should have spent more time personally with other people rather than glue to the computer screen all day long. These cafe owner even try to setup rules asking patrons to log off and talk.

No more laptop?

These moves are no doubt well intentioned. It will probably inspire many supporters. But why is so many people stick to their computer in the first place? It would be easy if we can determine that too much Internet is for sure a bad behavior, like watching too much TV. But what if it is true, that your second life is actually better than your first life?

2010.02.06 [] - comments

 

What is the name of this?

My son is a really good talker now. He is very inquisitive about everything. The most common question he asks all the time is "What is the name of this?" Sometimes he asks for the name of an animal, sometimes for some sort of vehicle, sometimes for an object that we just see or use. But sometimes he'd also ask for something we don't usually attach a name to. [more...]

2009.04.24 [] - comments

 

Impermanence

I was in a coffee shop one day. I saw this man in his 50s. His look aged. His hair grey and thinning. One thought flashed though my mind. I saw my son Tat Chee aged like him.

Mind you my son, now two months old, is the cutest baby in the world. He just starts to sleep through the night. He cries a lot but also smiles sometimes. He can babble and we are expecting to hear his first legible word. Then there is child care and school in our mind. Nobody would have associated old age with a baby. I should really concerned about myself with all these middle age issues like hair loss striking close.

But then... one day... Tat Chee would indeed become an aged man. Surely. Inevitably.

O impermanence.

2006.04.21 [, ] - comments

 

Anthropomorphism

US federal judge rules against teaching 'Intelligent Design' in classroom yestarday. Good for the kids now that the idiots are not allowed to stuff non-sense into their curriculum.

I don't plan to spend time debating creationism itself. Instead this led me contemplate the appeal of creationism and the concept of anthropomorphism. There are plenty of world origin myth. What about the world is originate from four elements and such and such. Few would consider them as valid theory. Why does creationism seems to be more plausible and have more credential in comparison? I really like to challenge fundamental assumptions. Great insight would often come after.

First of all many of us are already indoctrinated with Christian theory since young. But besides that the logic of creationism appeals to anthropomorphism - the attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena. We love to perceive the world according to human behavior. It is easy to think of things coming from a designer similar to ourselves. In contrast other theories like Big bang, heaven and earth or four elements don't have this kind of appeal.

Turns out I am not the first one to think of this. Philosophers have been thinking about anthropomorphism for a long time. Just too abstract for most people to grasp probably.

2005.12.21 [] - comments

 

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