A meeting between old friends

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Yesterday (Saturday, 18 November) I had the great pleasure of participating in the annual World Goodwill seminar held by the Lucis Trust‘s London branch. [30.11.2017: The whole seminar can be watched by clicking here; my presentation here; the panel discussion with Dr. Andreas de Bruin and Deborah Ravetz here. | 22.11.2017: I have uploaded a PDF copy of my PowerPoint presentation here.] For those from yesterday’s audience who may be stopping by this space to read some of my previous work, especially on the issue of spirituality and journalism, two notes for you:

The first note is that, alas, I have not been able to keep this space properly updated in recent years, and perhaps to the chagrin of some of you my most recent post was on something quite worldly: an online video game! (My first Master’s degree was in history, and I have gotten involved in FreeCiv Web, an online massively multiplayer role-playing game that involves historical simulation. So it goes!)

Nonetheless, the second note is that this space does contain some of the initial reflections that ultimately led me down the path of researching “philosophy of journalism”. My thoughts on the matter have evolved quite a lot since these, but if you want to read them, click here. If you might be interested in the broader assortment of ruminations and whatnot herein, click here to go to the “Virgil” section of this space, which has more information about what you can find.

World Goodwill

For those among my readers who are unfamiliar with the Lucis Trust, it is the fiduciary trust for publishing the works of Alica Bailey. Within the broader modern-day esoteric/occultist movement, Lucis Trust historically originates in Theosophy, and alongside the Theosophical Society it serves as something of the intellectual core of the New Age, hence it is one of the old guards of an important contemporary spiritual movement. The invitation to participate came out of the blue, and considering the Lucis Trust’s status, perhaps not within the mainstream but certainly within many other walks of life, it was quite an honor.

I was one of three presenters, the others being Dr. Andreas de Bruin who researches mindfulness and meditation within the institutional context of higher education, and Deborah Ravetz, who in academic terms can be understood as an artist engaging in forms of art-based existential therapy or logotherapy. Andreas is doing interesting and rigorous academic work down in Munich and the results of his studies will soon be available via the Mind and Life Institute. Deborah is remarkably eloquent and if I had to sum up her presentation, it would be with the Baha’i Writings: each of us really needs to see things with our own eyes, hear things with our own ears.

My presentation, entitled, “Mirror of the World: The Spiritual Quest of the Journalist”, is derived from my ongoing doctoral research into the phenomenology of news-writing. The gist of my presentation is that the notion of the “Impartial Spectator”, or Objectivity generally-speaking, operates for journalists a lot like the divine does for religious believers, and indeed one can even compare the journalist’s quest as a mystical imitation of the divine. I need to do some tweaking to the PowerPoint, but I will soon make it publicly available here and on the Lucis Trust website.

In all honesty, I found the World Goodwill seminar, including the discussions with the audience, substantive not to mention uplifting, far more so than, well, two major international academic conferences I participated in this past academic year. I also felt there was more of an exchange, not only between the three of us presenting, but with the audience as well as the staff of the Lucis Trust. On the one hand, the seminar was comparable to the recent academic conferences in terms of audience size but much smaller in terms of presenters. On the other hand, I feel that there was not only a lot more sincerity and, yes, good will in the event than what one may find in academic conferences in general, but also much more intellectual rigor.

A meeting long overdue…?

I just want to close this post with this observation: for us Baha’is, the Theosophical Society actually occupies a special place in our history, as Abdu’l-Baha during his momentous travels across the West from 1910 to 1913 gave some of his most important speeches to Theosophists, the most well-known of which were to those in Paris and here in London. Both their movement and ours have evolved immensely in the century since these original encounters, but it really felt like a meeting between old friends who were out of touch for far too long.

Considering the fact that, like Abdu’l-Baha, I had come to the event from the East (He from Acre, myself from Bishkek), the archetypal nature of this meeting between old friends is… well, it’s interesting, to say the least. I am not trying to elevate myself to the level of Abdu’l-Baha of course; rather, it feels as though I had been, what? — chosen? permitted? — to engage in some kind of deep pattern, and for this I am truly grateful.

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Making a Barbarian World

It has been a long time since I last blogged, and there’s a lot to talk about: my entrance into academia as a full-time lecturer at the American University of Central Asia, my marriage, my ongoing PhD, the growing clarity of my philosophical interests — “philosophical” for me being both academic-intellectual and spiritual-psychological, even spiritual-therapeutic — not to mention my interests’ evolving focus and scope. However, my first post in a long time will not be about these things, and it will even constitute a thematic break in the sense that what I want to post about right now is, well, very un-spiritual!

This post is intended to indulge in a hobby, namely, strategy gaming and the possibilities for tinkering (see this old 2010 post, “Checkmate by Checkers”, for example). In this particular case, the game is FreeCiv, the online fan-made version of Sid Meier’s Civilization history simulation franchise. This past summer, I have been playing the role of Saruman with the Orcs, experimenting with the game’s Barbarians. Here is my potentially crazy idea: it is possible to “social engineer” the Barbarian AI without any tinkering to the ruleset using the default settings of the average online easy-mode game. Furthermore, it may even be possible using such social engineering to establish a “Barbarian World”, i.e., a play scenario in which the Barbarian AI has seized control of all of the major civilizations and production centers, relegating the human and AI players to the margins, from which they will need to find a way to fight their way back to power.

This, then, is a love-letter post by one fan to other fans, although it is also part of a growing historical fascination of mine for social engineering, of which post-Soviet Central Asia is arguably (and controversially) a potential prime example in real-world history (and more about which I will hopefully be writing about in this space and elsewhere in the future). So, without further ado, what follows are my “mad scientist notes” about the progress I have thus far made in my experiment. The intention is that this will not be the final post. The experiment will be ongoing, so I will try to provide updates with screen-caps whenever possible. I now have a career, a family and fitness to attend to, so if this post attracts an audience, be forewarned that there may be long gaps in time between reporting. That said, if anyone would like to “carry on my (ig)noble work” (*ahem) please do!

Continue reading “Making a Barbarian World”

Wait for the wheel (IV): Downward is heavenward

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“And through it all she seems secure that downward is heavenward…”

-“Afternoon With The Axolotls” by Hum

It was a late July night just beneath the mountains around Karakol, and my insides were grinding with food poisoning. My skin seeped with hot sweat while my arms and legs shivered as though I had been bathed in freezing snow, and my skull thundered. My Kyrgyz compatriots first force-fed me modern medicine and then gave me a large dose of ancient shamanism. They laid me down in the törof a yurt, wrapped me in shïrdak rugs, and lifting my head, had me drink an entire chainik of green tea. Then all save one, their baqshï, the shaman, exited.

A middle-aged man with a gravely voice, weathered skin, and deep eyes, he leaned over me and, gripping my hands and gently compressing my forehead, began to chant a prayer in Kyrgyz. He invoked the name of the Kyrgyz nation’s ancestor-leader, Manas, and he called upon the cosmos and the divine creator Himself. I remember feeling somehow both inside and outside my pain, almost as though it were a kind of searing pleasure, an embodiedness so intense that I was disembodied. Most of all, I remember feeling cared for. Western medicine can often be so sterile, heartless; this ancient method, by contrast, was so warm, attentive. And it was sublime. I managed to whisper, “Sonun” — “Beautiful” — to my chanting compatriot. I could sense him smile in reply, and he gently rubbed my forehead. I thought to myself, If I die, this is a wonderful way to leave this world.

Continue reading “Wait for the wheel (IV): Downward is heavenward”

Ultreïa

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“The Truth doesn’t want to be proven; it wants to be believed.”
— Katarina Gritzer

Not long ago, I returned from walking the Camino de Santiago. Like most pilgrims, I started from Saint Jean Pied-de-Port on Halloween, end finished at Finisterre on 6 December. Although a writer by profession, I find myself at a loss for words to not only describe the outward journey, but to express the inward one, as well.

Continue reading “Ultreïa”

On the edge of the mesh

A “professional n00b“: that’s how I introduced myself at the OHM2013 convention last year, and ever since that’s how I’ve taken to introducing myself whenever I encounter a gosu. My hacktivist colleagues tell me that I’m being too hard on myself, since I do have a determination to learn (albeit in fits and starts, time and money permitting). However, I do actually see it as something good, since it’s people like me who have an interest in cutting through the technical arcana of engineers in order to bring important digital and technical tools to journalists, entrepreneurs, and the general public.

My life as a professional n00b began in the summer of 2011, shortly after the mysterious explosion of Abadan in Turkmenistan. I was approached by some, let’s call them helpful folks, who wanted to know whether mesh networking, or “meshing” for short, would be a useful way to circumvent surveillance and censorship in the country. Oh boy.

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Крещенские морозы

The post-Soviet states have entered a sort of season within a season, called “Крещенские морозы” (Kreshchenskiye morozy), the “christening frost”. Devout Russian Christians perform a baptismal rite during this period, carving crosses into frozen lakes and rivers into which they plunge themselves. And indeed, the whole interior of Eurasia seems to have been bathed in cold white.

I don’t hide from the fact that I’m very much an amateur photographer. Nonetheless, I try to push my limited aptitudes for the sake of something rather, let’s say “concretely abstract”: to simultaneously reveal to my audience and understand for myself how the world is philosophically communicative. Significance is everywhere; deeper, higher meaning is encoded within the very empirical flesh of the universe. And insofar that humanity represents a universe within a universe, studying the interaction between the natural and the artificial can be particularly illuminating.

I’m inspired by cinematographers like Sean Bobbit and Vadim Yusov, who (depending on the film, of course) have a remarkable ability to simply dwell upon an image, giving it time to communicate various complexities to the viewer. Of course, I’ve nothing of the artistic skill or technological resources to come anywhere near their work, but I nonetheless like to emulate them in my own shoddy way. From what I’ve learned so far, a lot of the key to their success is simply knowing how to frame a shot, acquire perspective, and allow things to be.

I suppose in the image I find the patience for contemplation that, ironically, I haven’t been able or willing to find in academic philosophy. Perhaps it’s because academic philosophy, for all its desire to be contemplative, too often dissolves into contention and competition, of puffed-up (usually male) egos needing to crush phantom-opponents to demonstrate their superiority. But all the arcana and feigned transcendence really just hides an animalism infecting one of the most human of endeavors. And I suppose that having been confronted with it — not to mention having read way too much French phenomenology and having worked too many years as a worldly journalist — I instinctively want to invert the reaction: I want the world to be the space of my contemplation, not the nether realm of bodiless, riskless ideas.

Anyway, because I find Bishkek to be particularly provocative in this regard, I’ve made it my training ground of sorts. My first stab was back in August/September 2011, with my photo-essay “Bishkek in Ruins“, which I hope to follow up with a new series in the next month or so (also exploring the concept of “ruination”, but from a different angle).

So, here are a few videos and photographs which could perhaps be boiled down to “the sights and sounds of a very interesting de-industrial/re-naturalizing/post-communist/trans-ideological/Slavo-Turko-Mongolic metropol in the grips of a rather sloppily wet winter”, given with my little initial comments to give a sense of the living, dying, mutating Bishkek that I see… [I’ve re-edited this post and removed two paragraphs, which I want to use in a later reflection; best to focus here. So, please click “Continue Reading” to see the photographs.] Continue reading “Крещенские морозы”

Een vreemdeling altijd midden ouden / Жат кишинин түбөлүккө байыркы элдердин арасында

Салмоор ДЫЙКАНОВ, коомдук ишмер

I’m someone who always seems to half-learn a language. I can master the basics for negotiating costs and traveling, as well as the best snippets for intellectual conversation, but there’s a wide gulf of, let’s say “actual” or “useful” language in between. And although I typically turn out as a partial mute, paradoxically, I also typically end up with a pretty advanced reading comprehension (I’m most guilty about this with French: I can’t order a pizza but I can read Merleau-Ponty — not that I’d really want to, though).

I imagine that for all half-mutes like me, it’s a common experience every time we try our hand at another language, we inevitably have weird reactions inside our skulls. Sometimes my brain wants to reply in Dutch or Hebrew, even Spanish; other times, it can’t escape the grip of English, and the words of my conversation partner just seem to slam headlong against a blank concrete wall between my ears. Studying Kyrgyz has provoked yet another kind of reaction: fond recollections for Flemish, but also some regret about the language.

Continue reading “Een vreemdeling altijd midden ouden / Жат кишинин түбөлүккө байыркы элдердин арасында”

The view from inside Mediastan

mediastan-the-documentary-about-wikileaks-that-assange-does-want-you-to-see-trailer-700x500The Kyrgyz have a proverb which goes, “Balaluu üi bazar; balasyz üi mazar”: “When there are children, the house is a bazaar; When there are no children, the house is a cemetery.” Although intended as an admonition for people doubting whether they want to become parents, it’s equally fitting as a warning to governments about the dangers of limiting the freedom of the press.

However, what Julian Assange and Johannes Wahlström seem to have discovered in their new film Mediastan is that there are, and shall always, be limits to the press – the expected political, legal, and financial limits, but also cultural, cognitive, and ethical limits. And as they endeavor to argue in the American context, it’s also dreadfully easy to mistake a mazar for a bazaar.

I’ve been asked by WikiLeaks-Press.org whether I have any reactions to the film. They came to me because a little over two years ago, I published an academic essay about WikiLeaks’ complicated impact upon the region. I’ve decided to take this as an opportunity to update some of the things I said therein, as well as to articulate what I imagine will be the view on Mediastan from within Mediastan itself.

Today is Kurman Ait (Eid al-Adha), the Feast of the Sacrifice in the Muslim faith. It’s a universal holiday commemorating the necessity of sacrifice in the name of one’s beliefs and for the sake of the greater good. So, I suppose it’s an appropriate day on which to pen this review, since journalism should be, first and foremost, about such self-sacrifice.

In the spirit of sacrifice, then, I ask viewers to spend their hard-earned dollars, euros, rubles, tenge, etc. on Mediastan, rather than waste them on the Hollywood spectacle The Fifth Estate. In the least, reviews of the latter indicate that you will have a much more meaningful experience from the former. And even if you strongly disagree with Assange and his belief system, you should nonetheless trust the Kyrgyz proverb: ultimately, it’s definitely better to have those noisy children from WikiLeaks in the house than not.

But no matter which film you choose to see, keep the critical faculties of your cerebral cortex activated. For instance, Mediastan has been criticized as anti-American “agitprop” and biased by some, but this is an empty and facile criticism. The entire purpose of Mediastan is to raise questions – certain questions that arise from a certain perspective, yes, even a certain bias.

Continue reading “The view from inside Mediastan”

Choosing Kyrgyz

Big decisions have been made this week, ending my brief “landing” phase in Kyrgyzstan, and starting a new, experimental phase. I’ll be moving in with a very interesting group of students close to downtown Bishkek. Also, I have made the unorthodox choice to try my hand at Kyrgyz before Russian (I studied the latter almost two years ago, but can barely speak it at the moment).

Hopefully the move won’t entail more “student life”. Truth be told, although appearances probably suggest otherwise, I’ve never been a fan of the student’s existence. Yes, I enjoy the late evenings of conversations and being able to crash on a friend’s couch without worrying about annoying a spouse or being too loud after the children’s bedtime. However, I’ve never been keen about the material poverty and the mental tyrannies often inflicted by ideas, insecurities, and professors.

When I left Belgium, part of me finally hoped to return to living the young adult’s existence, of which I had much too brief a taste during my closing years in Philadelphia. An apartment full of upstarts, living in an upstart city, trying to do upstart things. Strange how those years still seem so near, and yet there is nearly half a decade between myself then and myself now. And strange how, in a way, I sort of had such an experience during my closing months in Leuven. Well, I will just have to see what transpires.

As for Kyrgyz, where do I start about that? The language issue, as I suppose it inevitably would be no matter what the context, is a real knot of issues. Like Belgium, Kyrgyzstan has a serious language crisis, so any decision a foreigner takes is bound to disappoint and consternate someone. I still remember how angrily some of my Flemish friends reacted when I decided to learn French, as well as how many of my expatriate friends rejected the utility of learning Flemish — “a farmer’s language” they called it.

I would like to ask my readers: if you were me, which would you choose to learn? Please answer this poll. And click “read more” to read the pros and cons as I understand them.

Continue reading “Choosing Kyrgyz”

The future civilization has already arisen; we are its agents here in the past

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Things are moving quickly in Bishkek. In a single day, I already have several potential living spaces, including one for a measly approximately $37 per month (a fantastic place; the only problem is it’s practically in the foothills of the Ala-Too, far from the downtown where most of my daily work will be). The long-term visa is a situation that still needs some ironing out. Yet, although some anxiety simmers down in the depths, for the most part the foundations are calm. Something inside of me is saying, This should work, and even if it doesn’t, results per se were never the real point.

The city is even more energetic than what I remember from when I was last here, two years ago. A vortex of car traffic punctuated by pedestrian kamikazes; cracked pavement, or just no pavement at all, surging with plant life and petulant stone; orange and brown dust kicked up in the air; violet and turquoise neon lights bedecking chaikhana after chaikhana; sleek grey social-realist buildings, slowly crumbling or freshly renovated; the ubiquitous scent of burning metal, mountain, and chai — I feel as though I’ve found myself a character in what should prove to be a very interesting, and hopefully meaningful, science fiction film.

And speaking of science fiction, a strange time traveler-like feeling began to creep up on me in recent months about my and my friends’ various vocations as Bahá’ís, journalists, human rights activists, teachers, hacktivists, rogues, and the like. Somehow, being in this young, boisterous Asian republic, surrounded by all the hyper-ideological Soviet-era architecture — the living ruins of one of the great, failed grand discourses — have given me the words to describe it.

How often have we felt that we are fighting, even resisting, as though we were some lunatic minority bestriding the fringe of history, struggling to make a better world? How often have we felt that the horizon is dim, and our lot is merely to be stoic the face of human self-defeat? In fact, it’s totally the wrong way of viewing things.

Continue reading “The future civilization has already arisen; we are its agents here in the past”

The coming Global War on Hacking?

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I’ve got a suspicion that 2013 could very well go down as a fulcrum point in contemporary history, as well as in my own meager part in it. Julian Assange’s pinprick has now become Edward Snowden’s stab to the jugular vein, and meanwhile, I’ve had to provisionally decide how I’m going to steer the imminent deluge.

Here’s my thought process, and I’ll put it frankly to my audience: we should all be expecting in the near future the replacement of the GWOT (Global War on Terrorism) with the GWOH (Global War on Hacking). Consider: all it would take would be one massive power grid failure or some other similar immense infrastructural disruption, and then a logical but ultimately evidence-independent speculation (“we have reason to believe hackers were behind it”) to roll out new Patriot Act-like powers that effectively render criminal any technological attempt to maintain individual or collective privacy, much less to peer into the secrets of power.

The idea is not strictly-speaking mine. I heard it mumbled about in some quarters at the recent OHM2013 convention. However, other than an obscure comment to a 2011 editorial (copied in the post-script of this post), there’s nothing about in on the public web. So, let me spell it out a bit here, and then explain my own position, which I hope is moderate. And if not moderate, then at least independent…

Continue reading “The coming Global War on Hacking?”

Looking through a prism darkly: citizen-spy epistemology

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So, this post is regarding the Prism program, and the phenomenon of mass-level metadata accumulation and pattern analysis that it represents. ProPublic has published an extremely useful timeline about how the United States intelligence community has developed to this point (such as we can know on the outside, given the high amount of top secret classification). Meanwhile, my colleague Joshua Foust (who has testified before Senate about over-classification and other problems in the intelligence industry — among other things, that it’s an industry), has published nine points about Prism that the public should think about. The most important are points #3, 7, and 8.

Joshua’s remarks border on the cynical, but nonetheless he is onto something. With respect to his last point, my job here is to explain about why this shouldn’t be a temporary outcry. And the explanatory methodology is simple (and I would say, spiritual). The consequences, however, are complex. (I) On the one hand, the citizen and the spy need to put themselves into each other’s shoes; and (II) on the other hand, the citizen needs to really understand what is being asked of him/her by the spy, but also why the spy shouldn’t be asking this of the citizen, either.

Continue reading “Looking through a prism darkly: citizen-spy epistemology”

Habermas @ Leuven: the EU as enormous labor union?

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None other than Jürgen Habermas has come to speak at Leuven, and about nothing less than the future of the European Union – to be precise, “Solidarity, Democracy, and the European Union”. God bless him, Habermas is nigh unintelligible when he speaks (fortunately, the university distributed copies of his lecture), but no one can question that his heart is in the right place. The question is whether his heart possesses the best possible argument; that seems doubtful to me.

Arguably, Habermas is famous among philosophers, social scientists, and activists for making a Golden Age out of the Enlightenment era, and drawing abstract models therefrom. The best example is his famous description of how the public sphere and liberal democracy came to emerge. Historically, a crucial institution was the coffeehouse, which philosophically becomes liberal democracy in ideal form: a common, agreed-upon space wherein interlocutors agree to rationally and coolheadedly debate an issue to a consensus. Elections, in their best form, resemble such a debate; so, too, legislative discussions.

With respect to the European Union’s present troubles and its future solution, the historical model for Habermas, at least as I understand him, appears to be the late-nineteenth century labor union, which philosophically becomes supranational democracy in ideal form. This time, the idea is of forging a cohesive fraternity with a democratic (i.e., rational, deliberative) but still collective decision-making process with a wealth-sharing agenda. I presume that because everyone is acting and thinking in solidarity, and because the European Union’s various institutions are driven to work for the best interests of this collective, the notorious “democracy deficit” that besets the Union today would evaporate. So too would disappear the clash of national self-interests that are threatening, says Habermas (and we all sort of feel it), to rend asunder the northern and southern economies.

Continue reading “Habermas @ Leuven: the EU as enormous labor union?”