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November 1st 2014 20:19
There’s some food stuck in a bowl, so you leave it overnight to soak. It scrubs out more easily in the morning.

Why is that? I’ve got no idea. I believe it works, but I don’t know why. I’m assuming it’s to do with liquidity -- that swirling water molecules are abrading food particles.


Could you be said, in this case, to be using the water as a “tool”? Well, maybe yes, maybe no. People’s sensibilities vary. Water is not like what you’re first taught counts as a “tool” – a solid, physical, discrete object that you might pick up to hit nails with.

If you allowed that water could count as a “tool”, maybe any thing whose physical properties you’re consciously taking advantage of could count as a tool. Maybe clothes are a tool to keep warm. Maybe sun and wind are tools to dry your clothes.

Or is there a different rule here? Maybe any object that is a causal link in an intended chain is a tool, so that you’re a tool for the company you work for, and the company is a tool of the government for a better economy.

And if you’re soft on the idea that tools need to involve consciousness, intention, then when artists say, “The painting painted itself”, or writers talk about being mouthpieces for muses, clearly they’re tools. And maybe all sentient life is a tool by the universe for achieving God knows what purpose.


I suppose, ultimately, the story is about the tools that are philosophers, and what philosophy does.

If the train of thought above counts as philosophy, or a kind of philosophy, then it’s just about how to use words, what the range of usage is, what the boundaries are, what’s in and what’s out.

What purpose does such speculation serve?

Everyday usage -- zero. For everyday use, we’re fine with "tool".

If the question of definition happens to bother you, then thinking it through will bring relief. So, this is “philosophy as therapy” and as allied to lexicography, rather than as useful in a practical sense -- it’s for people who are neurotic or obsessive compulsive or have Asperger’s -- people with an anoraky interest in crossword puzzles or in keeping their concepts tidy.

But it’s also true, I think, that definitions don’t matter until they do -- until there is something at stake. And then everyone has a keen interest in what’s in and what’s out.

For instance, to get a refugee visa, you need to have been at risk of persecution, but what counts as “persecuted” or otherwise, and what counts as “risk” -- what exactly are the ranges of the words? Suddenly people start policing the definitional boundaries.

And even with a word like “tool” -- if you’re going to define human beings as special because, basically, they use tools and other lifeforms don’t, and if there is something at stake in the line between human and non-human, then the subtleties of definition become more important.


Making black blacker

October 3rd 2014 01:06
One problem I have with the movie Lovely Bones is that the villain is not just a villain -- he's a monster. He's murdered many children. He does this compulsively.

What's going on is that the author(s) quite consciously want to make black blacker and white whiter. It's the same with children's literature and with any propaganda -- Soviet anti-capitalism films, Allied anti-Nazi films. Not only do you want to maximise the evil of your foe, but you want to demonise them, place them beyond understanding. Don't confuse your audience. Your enemy eats babies.

What's also going on is a sort of fear -- if you get inside the criminal's head, will you yourself emerge a criminal? It certainly seems to be true, after all, that understanding can lead to forgiveness.

This is not to say that monsters don't or can't exist, but it is to raise the question of whether the world should be painted in just two hues.

On the practical side of things... If you have a question like, "How do we, as a society, get rid of child abuse?", in my view the answer is empirical. Maybe you combat it best by demonising it; or maybe you combat it best by understanding it.

Or if you have a question like, "Does empathizing with a pedophile lead to copycat behaviour?", that's also an empirical matter. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't.

So the justifiability of making black blacker and white whiter isn't ultimately to be decided from an armchair.

But I guess many people still feel a deep suspicion... On the values/ethics side, the main obstacle to simplification would be a commitment to truth. If you happen, for whatever abstract, idealistic reason, to think that truth in itself is a good thing, then it seems a failing, or even unethical, to close your eyes to it.



* The question is not dissimilar to drugs. If we want to best deal with drug problems, should we criminalise drugs ("Drugs are bad because drugs are bad. End of story"), or should we legalise and medicalise them?


Do evil people exist?

October 1st 2014 01:24
Now, this question doesn't really matter. For all practical purposes, there are bad people in the world, and whether you want to call them "evil" or not is mostly just semantics and rhetoric. But I guess, like many abstract questions, whether evil people exist is about subtly rearranging your worldview, or just making your thinking neater.

Here's various ideas of how to understand "evil person".


Idea one

Obviously, there are people who do "wrong" things.

If that's your definition of "evil person", then case closed.


Idea two

Maybe it's not just doing wrong, but the tendency, the inclination to do wrong. Ie, it's not a once-off, never-repeated lapse, but it's in your "nature".

Are there such people?

Yes, there are.

Perhaps, in fact, everyone in the world has a touch of it.

Note 1: Under the banner of this idea, perhaps I can still be by nature an "evil person" even if I never, from birth to death, do anything wrong.

Note 2: Perhaps there's a suggestion of two types of evil nature here -- the evil where I have an attraction to doing wrong, and the more clinical evil where I am sociopathic, cold, and indifferent to doing wrong.


Idea three

A different idea of evil emphasizes intention. You have to have the right sort to qualify as evil.

Consider the case of an insane serial killer. Is such a person evil? Idea two might say, "Yes. It's in his nature to do wrong." But a different understanding of "evil" might say, "No. He's not in fully conscious control of his actions. He's not evil -- he's just crazy."

So you need to have a degree of free will, so to speak. You can't be a murderous robot.

And you also have to realize you're doing wrong. Consider a suicide bomber with religious motivations. In his mind, he's doing nothing wrong. So, the label "evil person" doesn't sit neatly.

Now, there certainly are plenty of criminals who intentionally do what they know is wrong. So, under this idea, yes, evil people do exist -- although you could try to run the Platonic line that no one intentionally does wrong, so maybe no one is evil, and rather wrongdoing is due to mistaken thinking.


Idea four

The problem is that walking a mile in someone's shoes is sometimes an antidote to labelling them as evil. Consider the Godfather. Vito Corleone is quite happy to kill people, but he does it for family or love or whatever. We can appreciate his particular code and worldview, even if we find it abhorrent.

So he's not evil like a demon is evil -- he's understandable.

The core of this idea of evil might be a matter of means and ends. If you commit an act you believe to be evil in the pursuit of something you believe to be good, your intention is not purely evil, and therefore you're not straightforwardly an evil person.

If you gave the order to bomb Dresden or Hiroshima, are you evil? There's room for doubt.

So what counts as an appropriate end? Well, selfish ends are the obvious answer. Killing for power or pleasure.

Note 1: "Evil", used in this sort of way, doesn't depend on the severity of the act. If, for fun, I'm cruel to a child, or break up someone's relationship, perhaps the motivation is sufficient to deserve the label "evil person", even though no legal crime is committed.

Note 2: The breaking of rules in itself has numerous possible and common delights (sense of freedom, sense of power, sense of individuality, the happiness in getting away with something, etc).


Idea five

If you wanted to be picky, the problem with situations where pleasure or power is the end, is that those things are still morally neutral. So, with a thrill killer, for all practical purposes you can label him as "evil", but perhaps there remains a conceptual question mark. If he could have got that pleasure in another way, perhaps he would have taken it.

So if you follow idea four to its logical conclusion, to have an extreme, purely evil intention, the end should be evil, and not just the means. You should do the wrong because it's wrong, and regardless of whether or not you find it fun.

Are there such people? It's not obvious that there are, but there's no straightforward logical reason there's not. Maybe there have been Satanic cults where people regarded it as right to do wrong.


Idea six

Historically, "evil person" is an explanation. "Why did John kill Bob?" "Because John's evil." End of story. Enough said. And in this respect, "evil" fills an explanatory gap like deities do. "Why is there lightning?" "That's Thor's hammer."

In this usage, "evil" is almost supernatural, a dark force in the universe that causes things to happen or infects people.

But psychologists/neurologists don't use the word "evil". Why? Because it's giving up on explanation, and because there's little room in science for supernatural forces that can't be detected. The modern world has more useful, practical, finer-grained ways of describing behaviour and motivation.

In effect, science explains away evil. And if the concept of evil necessitates the inexplicable, then it must keep retreating before understanding.

So, there is a final idea of "evil" that raises the bar higher as to whether anyone is justly called an "evil person". And it's simply that pure, true evil, evil like demons are evil, must be beyond understanding, must defeat attempts to walk a mile in that person's shoes or relate their behaviour to any graspable human desire.

And if this abstract idea is your idea of evil, it seems quite unlikely that any human who's lived can qualify. "Evil" then exists only as a children's tale, or as an abstract, like "infinity".


A final thought…

Are there any good people? Well, for practical purposes, sure, you can have nice neighbours. But if you're adopting an "idea six"-type approach to "good", then the answer is "No." The good that people do can always be explained -- it doesn't stem purely, inexplicably from their nature.

But maybe living in a world without evil people or good people isn't such a bad way to be. Perhaps that's simply reality.


Camerawork and gender

September 30th 2014 05:57
Example 1: So, there was a bride and groom sitting at a table, signing the wedding contract. And the shot was this: camera starts with a close-up on their faces, then tilts down to the writing.

What was amusing was: the dress was bosomly, the bride was falling out of it, and the camera paused -- ever so slightly -- on its downwards trajectory

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Work/life balance

July 31st 2014 20:49
What is meant by "balance" in this phrase? I think a moment's thought suggests that the metaphor isn't kitchen scales (ie, you need 50% work and 50% non-work in your life), but may be somewhat older. It may hearken back to something like the four humours -- that there are these four substances in the body, and when one of them predominates (ie, they're out of balance) you get various morbid personalities, or various problems in your life.

You find this pattern of thinking all over the place. So, when Shakespeare says that "time's out of joint", I'd argue it's the same metaphor of natural order, natural balance, and that bad things happen when things are unbalanced. Similarly in eastern thinking -- that there is a correct balance of light/dark, male/female, hot/cold etc. Or in Aristotle -- means between extremes, and different parts to the good life

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Centre of frame

June 13th 2014 00:33
In real life, when you look at something, you place it in the centre of your "frame".

In a picture, when the main subject of interest is off-centre, this immediately opens up various possible meanings, effects, if the field of view is interpreted as being a conscious gaze

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Images that hurt

April 30th 2014 03:17
This is a strange idea to suggest or to try to articulate, but I think a good image, whether photo or video, has to hurt at least a little bit.

I don't know how to describe this hurt. It might be a matter of forcing you to look at the world in a different way. It might be that something is so beautiful that for some reason it hurts, or the coincidence between content and form is so perfect that it hurts. It might be that something is so human that it hurts, or so close to home, or so fleeting. It might be a matter of the reality of the events reaching out to you from the image. Or it might be on a more conceptual level, like disturbing some sort of belief or suggesting some idea that unnerves you

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Photo vs video

April 24th 2014 11:31
More compositions work for photo than for video.

Consider something as simple as a level horizon. If you had a video full of Dutch tilts, it would look amateur. If you had a photo album full of tilts, it might look arty

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March 18th 2014 17:57
Some sketchy thoughts…

What is offence? An answer might start with the idea that if I take offence, I'm angry and perhaps want to hurt you. This wouldn't mean that “taking offence” is identical with “getting angry”, but clearly the two are related

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The two elves

March 18th 2014 17:23
The youngest spoke first.

“Saint Nicholas,” he said, keen to please, “let me tell you of the things I’ve seen. I return to you from a far-off land. You have not been there for many years. You would find it much changed. The whole country is a forest of buildings, and for so long have the buildings blocked out the sky that many no longer believe in it. They instead regard talk of sun and stars as charming fictions, and few care to see for themselves

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